My friend Jayne Gackenbach is a leading researcher of the effects of video game play on consciousness, and in particular dreaming. In 2010 she invited me to contribute a chapter to a book she was editing on video games and consciousness. While most of the book’s chapters are academic in nature, Jayne encouraged me to write a subjective exploration of my relationship with video games as it relates to the development of consciousness, so this is what I did.

An excerpt

Video games have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and for a time, I really let myself go. During the first six months of my freshman year of college, I lost myself in the virtual, and my desire to remain there eclipsed much of my real life. It was a rough time for me, but the more I played, the more clearly I was able to perceive the effects gaming had on my heart and mind. My observations led to reflection, writing, and eventually a short film called As Real as Your Life. The general message of the film was simple: video games played a formative role in the development of my identity and worldview. Video games were my greatest source of emotional fulfillment and meaning. At the time, in 2006, people seemed genuinely shocked by the idea that video games were more than just entertainment, but by now this old news. In her recent book, Reality is Broken, pop game designer Jane McGonigal codifies this idea in a vision of the future where life is made more fulfilling by grafting game ingredients onto real life. This process of “gamification” has become the mantra of corporate marketers and peace-loving educators alike. Video game mechanics applied virtually or in real life, have proven to reliably produce mental engagement and emotional fulfillment.

As Real as Your Life also contains a far subtler, and potentially more powerful message. In the penultimate shot of the film I sit on a city bench looking dejected. A man costumed as Mario (of Nintendo fame) walks up, consoles me for a moment, and then offers me a hand. We walk together into the unknown. Fade to white. Over this sequence is the following voice over:

What I have only recently come to realize is that beyond the graphics, sound, game play and emotion it is the power to break down reality that is so fascinating and addictive to me. I know that I am losing my grip. Part of me is just waiting to let go.

My gaming had begun to subtly alter my sense of what was real, and in this I recognized a power that transcends mental and emotional engagement, a power to “break down reality.” In the five years since making the film, I’ve endeavored to better understand the specific ways in which video games break reality, and how this process relates to the development of consciousness. By playing video games with the express purpose of observing my inner experience I discovered similar phenomena while entering and leaving virtual realities, as while crossing in and out of altered states brought on by meditation or psychedelics. The characteristics of this meta-experience do not depend upon the content of the experience but rather the direction of the transition. In transitioning between states of consciousness, I have found that the constructed nature of realty is most clear. In this way, video games, like other altered states, have helped me to understand that the sensation of realness is not an intrinsic property of reality, but rather a quality that I project onto a given sensory experience. This chapter will examine the key experiences that helped me arrive at these insights.

Breaking Realities will be published in 2012 by Nova Science Publishers as part of Video Games and Consciousness edited by Jayne Gackenbach.