The Journey to the Wild Divine
"Just wait until you see the purple zebra," says Andrew Cutter, a clinical technician at the University of Rochester's Sleep and Neurophysiology Research Laboratory. He smiles and punches a few buttons on his laptop. Seeing my raised eyebrows makes his grin widen. "Trust me, you'll get there."
I've invited Andrew to give me a demo of The Journey to the Wild Divine, a special videogame he'd used while working at the Rochester Institute of Technology. I look at the game's box, and in the corner, under hot air balloons and a waterfall, sits a pleasant-looking woman at her laptop while menacing purple clamps crush her fingertips. Inside the box is a CD interview with pop psychologist Deepak Chopra, along with The Journey to the Wild Divine: The Companion Guide. Idly, I thumb through its pages, picking out phrases like "The Breathing Tree," "Temple of Great Compassion" and "Axis of the Double Durga."
"You know, this is why people don't take this stuff seriously," I say, tossing the book aside.
"Yeah, I know," he sighs. He fiddles with a pod-like device, which, for all I can tell, is just an overgrown USB port. "But it was the best I could get for under $500."
The Journey to the Wild Divine is a videogame only in the loosest of definitions. Its gameplay takes input not from controllers, microphones or keyboards, but from your body's natural rhythms, such as breath and heartbeats. Sensor clamps attach to your fingers and read your skin conductance and heart rate variability; by varying these physiological signs, you can control various elements in the game, from levitating a ball to creating a rainstorm. Essentially, you play the game with your mind, forcing your body, and the game, to do whatever you command.
While The Journey to the Wild Divine teaches you how to enter a calmer, more restful state, not all biofeedback games focus on relaxation. Some concentrate on increasing your productivity, others on maximizing your energy levels. "It all comes down to operant conditioning," says Andrew. "Videogames can give you more immediate feedback."
Naturally, ever since I'd heard Andrew mention these games, I'd been dying to give one a go. A videogame you play with your mind? Talk about a gamer's greatest fantasy. What could be more tempting than the complete eradication of any physical effort whatsoever? No more hand cramps. No more carpal tunnel. Just hook up the feeding tube, log on the computer and play until your eyeballs bleed.
More seriously, though, I was genuinely curious about this convergence of mind and machine. Controlling inanimate objects with the power of thought has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades, but here it was, tangible and real. We'd invented the first disintegration of boundaries between man and tool. What could this new electronic evolution mean for paraplegics, amputees and autistics trapped by their bodies? What could it mean for me? Would we one day become ghosts in our own machines?
So far though, such speculation seems entirely unwarranted. For being the next step in human evolution, The Journey to the Wild Divine looks awfully like a medieval torture device.
Andrew starts the program. Onto the screen swirl images of stars and nebulae, while an ethereal string quartet swells into a one-note crescendo. "In the beginning," monotones a sleepy, grandmotherly voice, "there were and continue to be the great Gardeners, who live in the Metaverse, a vast farm fertile with energy, creativity, intelligence and love."
I roll my eyes. She continues, unfazed.
"Welcome to the Garden," she drawls. "You are here because you remember that you too are a Gardener." The camera zooms onto a flower-covered hill, where a woman dressed like a Lord of the Rings extra sits and writes in a large book. She finishes her magic poem or whatever and closes the tome, walking off into the distance.
Suddenly, something materializes from a white mist. It is, indeed, a purple zebra. The Tolkien woman serenely leaps onto its back, and they gallop away.
"Andrew ... " I'm not sure I can take this much longer. He chuckles as he places the purple clamps (much like the shade of that striped steed) on my fingers.