Winter Theme Week: Consensual Hallucination

This holiday week, we’re looking back at some favorite posts about snow and ice. This post originally ran on Sept 22, 2011 when the concept of Game Transfer Phenomena was first identified. It has been updated with an anecdote that demonstrates how playing too much Mario Kart could save you from an icy death.

When William Gibson coined the term cyberspace in 1984 in the book Neuromancer, he described it as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators in every nation.”

Decades later, Gibson declared that cyberspace was everting. Which is to say, entering the next phase of its evolution by creeping out of the virtual boundaries that once defined it and into what we consider “real life.”

Earlier this week, a study out of Nottingham Trent University and Stockholm University hinted at what I think is the real potential of the internet: imbuing plain vanilla reality with an extra, shared dimension. Moving our consensual hallucination into reality.

The study, which will appear in the next issue of the International Journal of Cyber Behaviour, Psychology and Learning, looked at the psychological consequences of hardcore gaming. Gamers, the researchers found, get these little hallucinatory after-effects after being immersed in a game for a long time, and those hallucinations bleed out into reality after they stop playing. I was immediately interested because the thing they describe in their paper had happened to me – and I think it saved me from a terrible car accident.

It was mid-January and the roads in Queens were slick with ice. I was making the usual rounds in search of parking. While negotiating an especially tight bend, I went into a sickening sideways skid and headed straight for a row of snow-covered cars. I wasn’t expecting what happened next. Without thinking about what I was doing, I twisted the wheel in a way that I had never done before. It worked: I came out of the skid and drove away unscathed.

It was only after I had parked, legs shaking and heart pounding, that I recognised the reflexes that had kicked in during my moment of panic. This wasn’t the first time I had made that emergency steering movement, after all. I had done so countless times before, but on those occasions the wheel in my hands had been a white plastic controller. I had been saved by Mario Kart.

My experience was given a name earlier this year by those psychologists at Nottingham Trent. They call it “game transfer phenomenon”, or GTP. In a controversial study, they described a brief mental hiccup during which a person reacts in the real world the way they would in a game. For some people, reality itself seems to temporarily warp.

Some of the other examples of GTP the researchers found include gamers reaching for a search button when looking for someone in a crowd and seeing energy boxes appear above people’s heads. … Other examples included instantly reaching for the R2 button on the controller to retrieve a sandwich after dropping it on the floor, briefly considering using a hook to get something out of reach and a desire to zoom in to see something far away.

If you’re anything like me, your first reaction was something like this:

The only problem is, I can’t join you in that assessment that gaming reality excursion is exactly what I experienced that January night.

Between 2009 and 2010 I spent a disastrous amount of time playing Mario Kart Wii. I would come home at night, grab dinner and then sit obsessively for several hours clutching a little white plastic steering wheel. I’m not proud of this, but it’s necessary back story to explain why my brain had hiccuped momentarily into an alternate state.

That wasn’t the first time Mario Kart GTP had haunted my driving. One night, as some Jersey driver was swerving and lane-straddling in front of me on the George Washington Bridge, I instinctively reached down on the steering wheel for the button that, in Mario Kart, would send a red shell flying out in front of me to flip this asshole’s car off the road.

I didn’t worry until later that same drive, when another car’s relentless tailgating prompted me to reach for a banana peel to throw behind me.

In the press release that accompanied the study, Mark Griffiths, who directs Nottingham Trent’s Gaming Research Unit, said that “a recurring trend suggests that intensive gaming may lead to negative psychological, emotional or behavioural consequences, with enormous implications for software developers, parents, policy makers and mental health professionals.”

But do we have to see this strictly as a negative psychological consequence? From where I’m sitting, this is an opportunity for the internet of things to shine. Now that we have all these internet-connected physical objects, we’re no longer limited to interacting with them according to the old rules of the real world. And the way our games and virtual experiences have primed us to see the world are important clues to how the internet of things should be designed to change our interactions with reality.

Consider this line from the press release that accompanied the study: Participants [were] often looking to use something from a video game to resolve a real-life issue.

Imagine if you were driving like a jerk, and someone could throw Mario Kart objects at you. Not to wreck your car, obviously, because no one actually wants you to die. But imagine the real time effect of having a whole bunch of drivers behind you pelting you with red shells and banana peels? You might start to comprehend after a while that you’re driving like a muppet. Of course, there would need to be some controls on this, or else perfectly good drivers might find themselves getting the dreaded blue shell from random destructive teenagers. Like all anthropological applications of punishment, you’d need everyone to suffer some consequences for meting out any punishment. But whoever could make that work would be fulfilling my life’s dream of being able to hit the red shell button on a bad driver.

So come on, Internet of Things developers, let’s get Mario Kart to evert. But let’s not be limited to the gaming universe: so much other software offers useful paradigms. Next up, the undo button. I need a real-life one of these desperately.

Image credits:

Mega mushroom: Fanpop

Red shells in action screenshot: The Random blog of Link

Ogre yelling “Nerrrrds!” nateward89

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