Robin Arnott is the Founder and CEO of Andromeda Entertainment. He’s also the Lead Developer on SoundSelf, a game designed to help players meditate through toning. Arnott has been a game designer for many years having worked on the sound design for Antichamber. When I spoke to him via Google Hangouts, he’s relaxed and has the dressed-down look of yet another person stuck in isolation.
Right away, he dives into the nitty gritty of SoundSelf, which he absolutely believes is a videogame. “It’s a video game. I see it as a video game. Absolutely. I’m a game designer and my discipline is games and my lineage is games.
“But you could say the game mechanics are inspired by meditation principles,” Arnott explains how ceremonies, rituals and even religious practises are, in a way, people playing games.
“If you’re in a breath meditation, the game you’re playing is to bring your attention back to your breath, when you notice it’s wandered. It’s just a game that’s operating on a different level of your consciousness,” he says. I’d never considered things outside of genuine ‘play’ something you could call a game but as Arnott speaks, he has a way of painting an image with words and I started to see things his way.
SoundSelf, as a videogame, is opearting on a different level of our consciousness, according to Arnott and having played it, I don’t disagree with him. Because it’s operating on this other level, Arnott says, it makes it a “much more profound gaming experience that takes advantage of some of the same principles as meditation, as ceremony, even as psychedelics.”
Yes, it’s not a typo. Psychedelics. A study of players playing SoundSelf found that after 10-minutes, “players are reporting feelings of unity consciousness and disembodiment at levels similar to those observed in research with Psilocybin” and that “EEGs revealed similar patters as those who had taken psychedelics.”
Could a VR videogame really change your brainwaves and affect your mood in such a big way?
It’s not such a big stretch really. Think about when you play competitive videogames. The stress, the anxiety, the tension. It all builds up as you play and for some people, losing means tantrums, being tilted and getting angry. So, if games can change your mood in negative ways, whjy not positive ones.
Arnott explains, “SoundSelf overwhelms your narrative mind and your inner critic. Players find themselves in a state of really deep stillness, the kind of deep stillness you might reach with a long practised meditation discipline or that you might reach with a high dose of psychedelics.”
Now that we’d established the ‘what,’ I was interested in the ‘why.’ Why create a game like this and how do you even go about it? Arnott told me he’s long been interested in psychology, especially game psychology and being an sound designer has given him a particular love of sound. “People don’t notice sound,” he says, adding “When people don’t notice sound, it gives me an opportunity to affect a person’s pyschology in ways they don’t even notice.”
In Antichamber, Arnott used ambient sounds from forests, oceans and beaches because these sounds tell your body you’re safe and you can relax. “This gives you more space to sink into Antichamber’s unique challenges,” he explains. He tells me that creating SoundSelf comes from his desire to understand how “game systems can hack a person’s consciousness.”
Everyone knows that scary movies are less scary if you block your ears and some people need to turn the volume down in their car so they can park. So, why not use sounds to create an effect within a person and do so while being an active participant. Arnott tells me that SoundSelf is an attempt to help players achieve a oneness experience.
These are, as Arnott describes them, “mystical experience or a religious experience” which “help feel the soft boundary between self and other.” Usually, people can’t achieve these experiences without deep meditations or psychedelics which is why Arnott calls SoundSelf a technodelic. When I ask him about using technology to achieve something usually reserved for meditation or drugs, Arnott tells me that he believes humans have been using technology to do this for years.
I think this is what every religion is. Every religion is a set of principles and practises for helping people attain these states of consciousness. And I think the same could be true for many meditation practises. You look at a mantra or a mandala, these things are technologies.
They’re technologies that redirect your attention inwards and have this effect of shifting your state of consciousness. So I think people have been doing this for a very long time. Using the technologies of their age and the artistry of their age to help people turn their attention back inward.
I do think it is fairly new to be looking at video games and video gaming technology to do this, but I’m certainly not the only person thinking this way.
Now I knew ‘what’ and ‘why’ we came to the ‘how.’ Arnott told me in the beginning, development was very intuitive. He also spent lots of time researching and reading scientific papers to understand the effects of sound and certain rhythms on the brain. When he got so far as to put people into SoundSelf while wearing EEG headsets and seeing results, he started integrating things he learned from reading and from the feedback he was getting.
He also explained, he knew SoundSelf was going to be difficult to create so he built a version he knew he was going to throw away. Arnott knew he was going to make mistakes along the way and he took a year to make the first version, with the full knowledge it was a protoype. The final version takes everything learned from the protoype and experiments and makes the best possible version.
Once the final version was up and running, Arnott says using it and experiencing its effects was incredibly affirming but it was when he took it to Burning Man, he felt truly validated.
We started seeing people just go crazy with it, you know, laughing and crying and then we set it up at the Burning Man. We took this thing to Burning Man and made a big installation had this guestbook there. We got the most beautiful feedback.
You know, that was to me the most validating. It was probably a real golden moment for me to be like, wow, we are really on to something here.
I asked if Arnott had ever played SoundSelf while under the effects of a psychedelic and he told me he hadn’t but he said a friend had played it “on LSD and had an amazing experiece.” That also helped Arnott in his development of the game as his friend had some ‘insights’ while playing which were integrated into the final design.
Finally, I asked Arnott about the potential mental health benefits of playing SoundSelf and he told me, “the measurable things are that people have less anxiety, people experience more, positive emotional aspect like happiness and joy. They tend to just release anxiety and it’s not like just a temporary thing, you know, that effect lasts for days at least.”
Before we say goodbye, Arnott shares a quote with me from Terence McKenna who said;
The difference between computers and drugs is going to migrate toward the vanishing point, that the computers of the future will be drugs, and the drugs of the future will be computers.
When it comes to SoundSelf, I can’t think of anything more prescient.
Thanks to Robin Arnott for his time.
SoundSelf is available now for Mac and PC.