Can a game get you enlightened?

Not yet, but a sampling of virtual reality games I tried out at last month’s Buddhism and Technology Conference in Shanghai suggests that we might be on our way.

To be sure, none of the game designers I talked with promised total liberation from suffering. Rather, they are focused on more transitory shifts: creating transformative experiences, training the mind to meditate, and building calm. More samadhi [concentration] than panna [wisdom], in the terms of the Pali Canon.

Not that the designers are modest, however.

“My intention is to facilitate a temporary experience of the cessation of mental processes and identification with those mental processes,” explained Robin Arnott, creator of the game SoundSelf.

Lofty aims, but in my test drive, SoundSelf delivered, at least somewhat. Wearing a VR headset, the player enters an immersive world of geometric shapes that are controlled by one’s own voice. Chanting, singing, even speaking causes the shapes to develop, grow, morph, and move. The net effect can be pleasingly psychedelic, but because VR is so immersive, it can also be more than that: it’s not a bad approximation of a state of intense samadhi, such as in Theravadan jhana meditation or complex Tibetan visualization practices.

Arnott’s own inspiration is perhaps a familiar one. “The whole project,” he told me, “is inspired by my first ‘oneness’ experience, which was on LSD at Burning Man.” Unlike most people on an acid trip, Arnott, a longtime game and sound designer, realized he could facilitate a similar experience for others using VR.

SoundSelf isn’t a game in the sense of a competitive activity with a goal, scorecard, or tasks to complete. It’s more like a psychedelic mental playpen that is so immersive that it can create an experience of wonder—a flow-state in which the brain’s default mode network (what meditators might call “ordinary mind”) shuts down.

And, it is entirely abstract. “Everything that you saw in there,” Arnott told me after I emerged, dazed, from a 15-minute trip, “is an answer to the question of what abstract visual systems are rich and complex enough that we can make them dance and shift with your voice and still remain beautiful.”

That took a lot of iteration. Earlier versions had sounds and shapes that were perceived as dissonant, and a decent percentage of players reported that they had “bad trips,” emerging shaking or with difficulty communicating. “SoundsSelf opens you up,” Arnott said. “If there’s stuff you’re not ready to be with yet, and there’s some dissonance in the audiovisual experience, it could be a bad trip.”

Fortunately, the current beta version has ironed out those kinks. (After four years of development, SoundSelf is still not in full release, but beta versions can be purchased online). If anything, the geometric patterns felt familiar, and reminiscent of psychedelic experiences I’d had in the past.

Perhaps most important, you have to make the game work for you, which involves both mental attention and bodily participation. You can’t just sit back and trance out, and that level of engagement seems to help the unitive experience. In fact, all of the games I tried at the conference had this feature in common: the user’s body becomes part of the process.

Chakra, developed by Jason Asbahr, the founder of the VR development community, is focused on “stimulating the limbic system through body movement.”

“What the player sees when they put on the VR headmount is a world that moves to music, and they’re shown action prompts: little gems that they can reach out and touch,” Asbahr said. “And when they touch them, it releases energy to the universe, creating the universe.”

The net result isn’t so different from “Dance Dance Revolution,” the old arcade favorite where players must step on various floor-pads to keep up with an ever-quickening array of instructions. “There’s a common lineage, you might say,” Asbahr laughed. “Though ‘Guitar Hero’ would be the comparison I would make.”

As with SoundSelf, the key to the Chakra experience is its total immersion. It’s a contemporary version of what the German opera composer Richard Wagner called the Gesamtkunstwerk: the “total work of art” involving multiple media and art forms.

Where Arnott is aiming to create a peak experience, Asbahr had a somewhat more esoteric intention. “We’re trying to balance left and right inputs, and there’s an adaptive function that keeps you in the flow zone,” he said.

Similarly, in Owen Harris’s DEEP, players use the breath to maneuver up, down, and through a simulated underwater world. Like SoundSelf and Chakra, DEEP doesn’t send you on any adventures. But it works quite effectively to quiet the mind, even at a busy multi-day conference in a foreign city.

Harris explained that DEEP came about partly as a result of working with his own anxiety. Accordingly, the game focuses on neither peak experiences nor trance states, but relaxation. Harris’s website says it will “sweep you into its relaxing embrace as it teaches you yogic breathing techniques that can alleviate stress, anxiety, and mild depression.”

Now, is all this cheating? Isn’t part of the point of meditation to do the work on your own, without all these clever tools to make it easier?

Meh. Meditators have been using clever tools for millennia. The Visuddhimagga, a core Theravadan Buddhist text that translates to “The Path of Purification,” suggests staring at kasinas [colored discs] to cultivate jhana concentration states. Tibetan mandalas aren’t merely pretty; when concentrated upon, they unfold into three (or more) dimensions, becoming intricate palaces to navigate around and through. If these VR games are cheating, then so are vast swaths of the Buddhist tradition.

And we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Today’s VR technology is pretty awesome, but it will seem laughably primitive in a decade or two. It’s inevitable that tomorrow’s games will be immersive, somatic, and, yes, addictive. At least these dharmic games are utilizing that emerging technology for the purpose of cultivating wholesome mind states.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that he could imagine a religion comprised entirely of jokes. Maybe we’re witnessing the dawn of a religion of games.

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