Consensual Hallucination


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.” Sure enough, about 5 minutes later, the world proved him right, again, and the Internet of Things began to erode the distinction between the virtual and the real.

Most descriptions of the possibilities of the Internet of Things have centered on things like RFID-tagged Starbucks cups that let the company trace your steps through its corporate universe, both real and virtual. Usually the first groups of people to find anything useful to do with new technology are marketers and the military.

But 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 of things: 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.

‘Game Transfer Phenomena’ (GTP) results in them doing things in the real world as if they were still in the game. Extreme examples of GTP have included 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 because I’ve experienced the gaming reality excursion.

Between 2009 and 2010 I spent a disastrous amount of time playing Mario Kart Wii.  I’d 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, one weekend as I was driving to New Jersey and 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 was mostly just amused by the episode until later that same drive, when a Nissan Altima’s relentless tailgating prompted me to reach for a banana peel to throw behind me. At that point I started to get a little worried.

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? 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 you know those “How’s my driving” stickers? Nice idea but the latency on those makes them unsatisfying. 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 one of these desperately.


Image credits:

Mega mushroom: Fanpop

Red shells in action screenshot: The Random blog of Link

Ogre yelling “Nerrrrds!”


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16 thoughts on “Consensual Hallucination

  1. Gail F– can we get a petition started? An undo button might require time machine technology, but if things go horribly awry, you could always hit the undo button. ouchouchouch, I just gave myself a recursive ice cream headache.

  2. When cleaning up my desk or other clutter, a lot of the time when I decide to throw something away, my brain hollers out “delete,” as if I’m cleaning out my inbox.

  3. If it’s true that there are neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light, you might get your undo button after all.

    …then again, you might also get regular visits from older versions of yourself claiming to be from the future nagging you not to eat so much salt too…

  4. I remember seeing something about EA Games developers saying that they saw professional footballers mimic plays that only made sense in the game. The main one was a play to score a touch down and run down the clock by running parallel to the touchdown line while in open space until a defender forces you across the line.

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