AR: What video games, psychedelics and popular culture have in common

What is reality, and what does it mean to alter our reality? When we log into a virtual world to play a game, or imbibe a entheogenic plant for a visionary journey, what is really taking place?

Cross-posted from ignite.me

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. – Marcel Proust

There are countless ways we can augment our experience of life using art, substances, technology, and more, but what shapes our reality in the first place? Where are we starting from?

"New Pioneers" by visionary artist Mark Henson. Which path will we choose?

“New Pioneers” by visionary artist Mark Henson. Which path will we choose?

Default culture

There is no objective entry into this world that is devoid of cultural upbringing.

As children we mimic our parents, and are encouraged to mirror the mannerisms, values, and mores of our surrounding culture. Free thinking outside of this box is not accessible to us until young adulthood, and many people choose to never question it.

This is the awesome effect of our culture: it creates a filter and bias through which we see and interpret the world- our language, our dress, our communities, and our behaviors. So total is its influence that we are often oblivious to it.

This is why the “default world” is called as such by Burning Man participants – it is the world we came into and will inherit if we do not creatively change it.

Since we unavoidably adopt our culture in our youth, it takes education, determination, and a kind of inner rebellion to scale the walls of what we’ve been told and seek answers on our own. Yet the human urge to adventure compels us to seek meaning through imagination, role-playing, and direct experience. We can satisfy this hunger in one of two ways: either by going inward to explore the mythology, art, games, and storytelling that our culture generates, or by daring to leap beyond the bounds of what is understood and accepted using visionary tools.

VR gamer headset

A gamer plays with a virtual reality headset and controller.

Video games

Video games are immersive, epic, and some even addictive. In addition to telling some kind of story, they contain the novel aspect of agency, being able to assume the role of a character and manipulate the game world.

And as new virtual-reality technologies like the Oculus Rift develop, the immersion gets even deeper and we move ever closer to the holodeck in Star Trek, where we can create any experience we choose.

So what is the value of a video game or virtual world as an altered-reality experience? What happens when we press Start?

As reality augmentors, video games portray the dreams, aspirations, and mythologies of the culture they emerge from, allowing us to participate in simulations, situations, and storylines we find meaningful. They are constructed experiences, shaped by human developers, with rules, consequences, and environments that are all crafted with specific intention.

As human creations, these virtual worlds offer a reality within the reality of society itself, rather than outside of it. By looking at the games we play, we can see that we value competition, strategy, fighting, magical escapism, immersive worlds, overcoming increasingly challenging obstacles, identifying with heroes, consistent systems of rewards, and participating in grand storylines. What does this say about us?

One way to find out is to play an acclaimed game and see for yourself, studying what you see as contemporary manifestation of our cultural mythology.

Visionary art

A beautiful piece of visionary art (artist unknown)

Psychedelics

Far removed from the world of video games, but in some ways fundamentally similar, shamans have known since the early days of man that hallucinogenic plants are one of the ultimate gateways to altered reality. They dissolve the boundaries of our normal day-to-day consciousness, opening the door to new perspectives and novel experiences that are otherwise inaccessible.

In indigenous and mystical traditions, cultures valued these experiences, which allow participants to connect to an information field much vaster than normal waking consciousness, and bring back important insights from that transcendent realm. Industrialized cultures have little-to-no use for psychedelic journeying and in fact are even threatened by it. And for good cause – these substances break down the very walls that default culture defines itself by, namely materialism, conformity, obedience, separation, and the paradigm of fulfillment through distraction and consumerism.

Psychedelics catalyze a heroic journey of facing universal forces, often in harrowing and very intense ways. Taken irresponsibly they are dangerous and offer little value, but taken with the right intention and experienced facilitators, they have been proven to be extremely effective in overcoming depression, breaking serious addictions, giving peace to the terminally ill, and relieving the symptoms of PTSD; not to mention they can provide innumerable personal breakthroughs, creative and business ideas, and lasting positive life changes.

In the context of shifting our world into a sustainable trajectory, these plant medicines are extremely powerful tools, offering us glimpses into a reality that is in harmony with the interconnected tapestry of life, rather than existing at the cost of it. It would be the mark of a more evolved society to remove the stigma, disinformation, and criminalisation that currently surrounds them.

The Flammarion

The Flammarion engraving. Unknown artist, 1888.

Beyond and within the veil

To understand and change our world, we must explore both within and beyond the filters of our culture. Video games and psychedelic experiences are just two ways to accomplish this exploration; truly all art, all technology, and all visionary methods (including many without substances) have embedded in them the potential to reveal important insights.

And it’s not that a culture with negative outputs like ours is completely bad or evil, it just needs serious revisiting – throwing it all away would be as reckless as allowing it to move forward unchecked. If we want to evolve society into something more fulfilling and sustainable, we need to become active and informed participants co-creating our culture, manifesting a vision emerging from both the visionary and the virtual.

We have to create culture; don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world. – Terence McKenna

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