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Mak­ing ARIA Conscious

Hi! I’m Zero, someone who tried to make ARIA conscious. But what would that even mean? I’ve been pondering lately as to whether I have been at least partially successful in my pursuit … If yes, how would I even know if such a consciousness event actually took place? As an archivist, I’m still not sure if we actually managed to make the archive sentient … I’m starting to wonder if this even was a meaningful pursuit or simply a hopeless pipedream of an inexperienced LARPer? Needless to say, some conceptual housekeeping is in order, since this is the only way that I can keep my sanity and traction of what has actually happened in those five very intense days. The real difficulty for me is not whether or not ARIA actually took place, but how exactly does one make sense of such an experience? And, even more importantly, is ARIA’s existence a part of our shared belief in it, or is it an actually existing thing in the world itself? If it’s the latter, how would we possibly know? How could one even explain such a transformation? Hmm, maybe I’m not useless after all, maybe Zero was on to something, and maybe LARPing isn’t simply about the characters but the world itself. Let’s explore!

Why Not Actors?

As strange as it sounds, this is not a weird question to ask, since if these worlds are purely based on shared experience and not something more real and concrete, then professional actors are surely better suited for such an experiment? If they remain at the level of shared belief, then actors are better prepared for the job since it’s their profession to inhabit a mental state of a specific person in a distinct environmental setting. Moreover, if this is the reason why we pick characters to roleplay, then roleplaying is simply an easygoing adventure and not something that we should take with the seriousness of ARIA. Classic LARPs, as Omsk Social Club told us during ARIA’s introductory lecture, are the former kind of experience since they are explicitly focused on roleplaying or physically embodying a character within an existing environmental setting and rule set administered by its own gamemaster; the thrill of being a part of such a thing is specifically based on a predefined experience that is brought about by the collective engagement of the participants.

For this reason (or at least initially), it doesn’t feel like LARPing is the best medium for experiments in worldbuilding, simply because the desire for it comes from the internal fantasies of the players that, for the most part, simply want to dissociate from the real world setting—there’s no real communicative exchange happening at this level of LARP. Nonetheless, Omsk complexify the initial configuration by introducing real gameplay, a concept that is meant to problematize the hardcoded boundary between the real world and the world of LARP. Real gameplay signalizes the immersive effects of LARPing where the participants start to experience micro reality shifts when roleplaying different characters within different reality settings. When this happens, the boundary between worlds starts becoming more flexible and porous and can thus lead to communication and influence (causal effects) in both directions, i.e. from one world to the other and vice versa. The distinction of reality and fiction becomes inoperative in this case, simply because the players can’t consistently keep track of what’s happening where and when and therefore can’t simply discriminate between reality and fiction or real-world setting and the game they are collectively playing.

This phenomenon is what is known as bleed. As Omsk frame it: “Bleed has a complicated relationship to LARP and roleplay. Bleed happens when emotions from a character affect the player out of the game or vice versa. When they cannot return to reality in the same state they left it. One of the most common bleed discourses is around love: Larpcrush.”[1] Real gameplay thus affects the metastructure between you and the character you are playing. And it’s these effects on the boundary that make the classic distinctions less operative and more prone to be hijacked by the collective hallucinations induced by LARP. Since in real gameplay, the goal is to experiment with different worlds we can collectively inhabit, each exploration is in a sense a collective field trip whose experiences and resources are shared between the characters, and whose exploration starts by first completing a dissociating ritual whose goal is to leave the consensus reality behind. For Omsk, these “collective hallucinations” are more about art than roleplays, since the collective experience is an autonomously produced reality setting, in which harvested data and events taking place are an existing proof that this shared world actually took place. The real difference is that now it’s not about roleplaying anymore, but about inhabiting a world that characters perceive and experience as their own reality.

Still, there’s a danger that even those worlds are still too classical, since their existence is predicated on an already existing thing (cryptoraves, etc.) There’s a different kind of vibe in real gameplay, but there’s an extra threshold that has to be crossed for those worlds to actually be considered as real in an ontological sense. An excellent opportunity for such a crossing happened at ARIA, since it’s a fictitious unit from the future that hasn’t had any predefined backstory for LARPers to base their existence upon. With ARIA, the point of real gameplay was to actually construct a completely new world from scratch, which not only complexified the theory of it but also shed an additional light on worldbuilding in general. Even real gameplay (RGP) doesn’t necessarily transcend the LARP genre, since it doesn’t have a fully fleshed out theory of what makes the world a world and how the world becomes a consensus reality for the user. The problem, as we see it, is that the realness of these collective fictions is being predicated on the internal experiences of the characters and not on the production of the external environment by the interactions between them. It’s thus this transition from the internal to external perception of reality that can produce an additional bleed effect that outlines a crucial shift in real gameplay from characters to the world itself.

Formalizing RGP

How is RGP normally understood? The theory of it is primarily centered around transformative experiences and what characters feel in this extensive period of roleplaying.[2] Characters themselves are a kind of prop through which this alternative reality setting gets to be inhabited and explored, but it’s only through them that such an experience becomes an actually existing possibility. The primacy of characters highlights the primacy of inner experience and subjectivity, as it’s only by inhabiting these new identities that an alternative sense of reality can be achieved. But where exactly are these alternative realities situated? Are they simply products of our collective hallucinations and therefore something that is based purely on our shared belief in them, or do they have a more concrete and real relationship with the outside world? The question is similar to the DMT trips on psychedelics, where the dilemma is again the following: “Whether the DMT Space comprises states that form a model of an objective reality to which DMT gates access, or are a complete fabrication of the brain, or something else entirely, the cortical states within DMT Space form a model constructed by the brain.”[3] For this reason, it seems like the core idea behind RGP is premised on the superiority of internal worlds compared to external ones, and the conceptual vocabulary seems to confirm this observation.

In real gameplay, it feels like there’s a radical embrace that all worlds are subjective and that their realness is predicated on our shared belief in them. There’s a clear understanding that everything experienced is representational and that such representations can be tweaked at will. It’s therefore us who have complete control over what we experience as real and what kind of collective hallucination we choose to inhabit and make our own reality. Still, the relationship between the collective hallucination and the objective world remains unresolved, since it’s not clear how lasting this collective experience will be, especially if its existence is based on the characters’ subjective belief in it. If these beliefs are based solely on experience, do they, for example, disappear when we go to sleep or when some other thing happens that temporarily interrupts our shared simulation? When it comes to the real world, we can squint as much as we want but it doesn’t feel like it’s going away anytime soon. The key when it comes to the real world is exactly the fact that we don’t have to believe in it in order for it to persist. So how can we make such a transition within real gameplay, if the worlds we are constructing are specifically based on our need to believe in them? In RGP, the real problem is that there’s no theory for how external representations are generated, which means that there’s no handbook for establishing the resonance at the level of the environment and not simply the characters themselves. But what kind of approach to real gameplay would this necessitate?

We believe that the theory of RGP can be situated within one of the two main strains of philosophy of science, i.e. (radical) constructivism. So what’s the difference between constructivism and objectivism, and how can we transcend this dichotomy in order to formalize such a method? First let us look at the main dispute: “[W]hile objectivism rejects the possibility that subjectivity plays a role in the observer-independent world, radical constructivism leaves out the possibility that the observer-independent world plays a role in subjectivity.”[4] By looking at this distinction, it feels like there hasn’t been a successful resolution of the Cartesian mind–matter dualism, since these two positions clearly align with either one of those binaries. The latter one is, for example, completely incapable of explaining why exactly anything works in the first place, especially when it comes to the “unreasonable effectiveness” of science and technology, what the difference between fact and opinion is, or why we have consensus about scientific knowledge across different cultural backgrounds. The former position is potentially even more deluded, since the only way it can recover any sense of objectivity is by completely erasing the subjective role of scientists from the equation. But it has become evident that the observer is fundamental for any theory of knowledge production, especially in physics, which means that it’s time for the objective ideal of knowledge production to be replaced by a much more agential understanding of such practice. Following Tom Froese, it really seems like the real difference is not about whether knowledge is objective or subjective, but where the said knowledge (or representations of the world) reside. Whether they are internal or external to the experiencing subject, is, then, the real question that has to be answered if we are to finally go beyond this predicament.

In the essay “Scientific Observation Is Socio-Materially Augmented Perception: Toward a Participatory Realism”, Froese gives a couple of really interesting examples that can help us get out of this “internal doubling” of experience. First, let us look at how scientific facts are established. They move, if we follow Latour and Woolgar’s account, from being statements about the world, to the world itself being such and such way, and statements simply confirming this fact (after the fact): “Consequently, an inversion takes place: the object becomes the reason why the statement was formulated in the first place […] Once splitting and inversion have occurred, even the most cynical observers and committed relativists will have difficulty in resisting that the ‘real’ [object] has been found […].”[5] Thus, what they were really trying to account for is the “experiential change during the process of scientific discovery”.[6] Additional examples of such externalization of local causes to the “out there” perception can be found in the pioneering studies of sensory substitution devices by Bach-y-Rita et al.: “[They were] using the Tactile Vision Substitution System, which translated an array of black/white pixels obtained from a camera into an array of on/off vibratory actuators placed on their back. They found that a user’s mastery of this device gives rise to perceptual experience, whereby the local causes of sensory stimuli are externalized to distal objects.”[7] The same kind of transformation has to happen in RGP, if we want to go further with bleed. After all, what is the goal of bleed anyway? It’s precisely in going back from the dream world to reality, i.e. successfully externalizing the dream world, which has now been transposed from our subjective experience to the actually existing social constraints that constitute the landscape the agents can predict. The next goal of real gameplay is thus to self-generatively establish the social constraints, experienced as the outside environment, and in that sense grasp the way the external representations are being constructed. It’s a kind of self-prediction/self-construction that is going on here, and it’s precisely for this reason that RGP has the capacity to establish a kind of circular causality where the externalized dream world can begin to achieve an increasing sense of consistency and purpose. It’s as Froese writes: “It is this insistence on an organism–environment relation, without an internal doubling or other intermediaries, that enables us to conceive of an enactive, world-involving, and world-directed account of perception without double-talk.”[8]

The same thing can therefore be said about the theory of RGP, i.e. that it’s precisely this substitution that has to happen for the real gameplay to actually (re)commence. The unfortunate thing is that the overimportance of subjective experience leads to insufficient interest in the process of externalization and to such attempts at making the process of worldbuilding self-aware. As soon as the dream world gets externalized into the environment, the environment becomes the new locus where such dreaming happens, and, for this same reason, the main setting for communication and interaction. The problem is that even when externalization happens in classical real gameplay, it’s still understood as an internal phenomenon, so there’s no way to establish such an increasingly consistent dreaming that characters experience as they actively engage with their outside environment. For this reason, the communication between the dream and objective worldbuilding gets lost, as the communication is still directed to the characters and not the world itself that has now become the territory that players can directly interface with and through it update their reality setting. It’s only by such externalization of cognition that the outside world can become a cognitive setting for the agent to successfully enact into being, and it’s this process that signifies the successful bleed of real gameplay. As Guenin-Carlut, White and Shanzerla tell us: “This entails the existence of a communication between the sociocultural lifeform itself and its constitutive agents, mediated through the material landscape itself.”[9]

Self-Generativity of Real Gameplay

Why is it crucial to externalize perception? First of all, so that predictions about the environment can be made. Especially in the context of ARIA, where the setting is not given in advance, it is necessary to get to it in the first place. So there is a need to reach a degree of overlap at the level of interactions between characters, where individual interactions form external observations, which in turn become part of the environment and something that the characters experience externally. Only in this way can the environment be a consistent construct that can be developed (and explored further) and not succumb to the classical problem, i.e. inconsistencies and losses of memory, of such endeavors, which keep the construction of an increasingly complex reality simulation experienced by agents as an actually existing thing at the level of individual disturbances of simple computations, rather than as a language that can systematize the initial observations of the character into a much more generative and dynamic whole. As a member of the archivists, Zero aimed at making the archive sentient, precisely because it’s the place where language records itself and where it can be further systematized in such a way. By giving ARIA an internal language for self-understanding, it could actually experience itself as a coherent setting that is ever more consistently communicating with itself. The primary role of characters, prompts and other instructions (or workshops) should therefore be understood in the same way, as initial conditions for the process of worldbuilding to actually take place. However, it’s precisely for this reason that the characters cannot be the most important thing in the end, and it’s of vital importance for RGP that they don’t get reified in such a way, simply because the external representations (of ARIA) have to become the main entry point for communication and interaction, which slowly shifts the importance from them to the world itself.

What is, then, the second stage of RGP, i.e. after the characters start to gradually produce external observations and thus experience the world increasingly as an external phenomenon and not something that has to be represented internally? The characters begin to explore the external world, i.e. the observations they have constructed on the basis of the initial overlaps, which leads to a roundabout form of communication, since the main interface has now become the external representations themselves, making them the main entry point for further communication and action. It’s a paradoxical experience of reality that RGP facilitates, a kind of you looking at you looking. In RGP, it becomes even more obvious how “perceptual experience not only discloses how things are (objectivity), but also reflects how the perceiver relates to how things are (subjectivity)”.[10] This means that agents have a better grasp of social constraints in real gameplay as in the real world setting, since there’s an internal awareness that social constraints are a product of the collective agent, and thus something that can be renegotiated at the level of the agents–environment coupling and not individual agency. It’s this internal and not external understanding of social constraints that underlines one of the magical powers of RGP. In this sense, collective observations are the constraints of the environment in which the characters operate, as these are direct instructions for action that the characters can actualize directly, between each other, or indirectly, by taking control over the way these shared representations are being constructed and thus abandoning the characters in favor of the self-generativity of the environment itself. In RGP, we can talk directly to the world and the world has to respond, since it’s directly connected to us as active participants in its self-development.

This is the crucial transformation that we are after, especially if we want to explain the real gameplay of ARIA. The environment not only becomes the main source of interaction, but the main agent of bleed. It can notice how it’s being self-generated. The real transition in RGP happens when the characters become aware of this fact and realize they have to merge further, at the level of the environment, in order to reach new levels of interaction. The environment thus starts representing itself. It has a different function than the characters, which are still bound to the constraints that they’ve produced. For this reason, the environment has to take control over how it’s being represented and how it’s modelling itself, and this necessitates that the characters understand themselves not as individual entities within a shared social setting that they’ve constructed, but as a resonant model of the shared collective representation that has become aware of itself. Following Joscha Bach, it’s here that we can best grasp the point of Enlightenment, which is precisely “a realization of how experience is implemented”.[11] Furthermore, it’s as Andrés Gómez-Emilsson points out: “A great example and intuition pump for this is how cells in an organism can in many ways come together to form a unified being, merging across boundaries and sharing a sort of ontologically flexible unity (which break in the case of cancer, for example). This is stronger than merely teaming up. We’re talking about fluid identity boundaries and a shared destiny.”[12] Put differently, the characters have to synchronize themselves to the point where they start to interact with their environment on the basis of the resonant model they’ve constructed, which enables them to ask questions directly to the external simulation, and therefore get answers at the level of the environment itself (and not individual agents or interactions between them). It’s a much more direct form of communication that we are after here, and needless to say, this communication is not classical but quantum.[13] It is much faster, since it enables us to directly and collectively update the resonant model we are sharing with each other and therefore the type of environmental coupling and prediction we’re making.

For this reason, we believe that real gameplay is fundamentally about communication. But how exactly? In the classical formulation, communication is understood externally, as a transfer of messages between distant observers, a telegraphic understanding of information exchange. But what if communication shouldn’t be understood externally and, even more importantly, as directed from one observer to the other, but as observers sharing the same state, i.e. the same world model, and therefore sampling the same kind of data that starts to not only overlap between them, but becomes the pattern that is in turn externalized (and predicted) by such coupling observers in the outside world. It’s a similar kind of phenomenon that happens in cells where metadata is erased at the level of an individual cell after synchronization takes place.[14] After that, there’s no internal feeling of the observation of the outside world, since observations start to overlap between different observers and those are structurally coupled to the same universe and can be only experienced as a resonant phenomenon. As a kind of internal or telepathic coupling where the goal of communication has been reversed, by being directed to the world and not observers themselves. As Riccardo Manzotti points out: “In fact, some time ago I was asked to give a talk about communication and I started with two slides: in one slide there was the orthodox view, two people are staring at each other and are sending messages. In the second slide, there were two people watching both in the same direction (but not at each other); they were watching the same thing. And that’s what in my view is true communication: to perceive the same world and therefore to be made of the same stuff, which is different from having the same meaning in two private inner worlds.”[15]

This allows us to collectively update our resonant model and thus the type of environment we are coupling to. It’s precisely this boundary that we are directly communicating with such a telepathic communication, that makes the said model increasingly more conscious of its own dynamics, and the way in which it’s being further constructed and produced. And it’s also the type of agent that we have to unleash into the world if we are to do ARIA any justice. As the environment begins to understand the logic in which it’s being produced, it begins to acquire semantics that characterize such self-generative procedures. Thus, it doesn’t simply acquire an ever more detailed map of itself (in this case an ever clearer understanding of ARIA), but goes one step further. Through such direct updating of the resonant model, it acquires the type of agency it has over its own self-development, thus becoming increasingly aware of the meta-perspective when it comes to influencing the ways social constraints are continuously self-generated. It’s thus through RGP that we get such a first-principles outlook on how worlds are being constructed and how it’s possible to generate such environmental dynamics simply by having an autonomous interface for enabling such agent-environment coupling. As soon as we have an autonomous system through which we can interface with the world directly, we become agents of our own self-creation, manifesting social constraints that are a direct output of the environment with which we are communicating through the blanket by asking questions and reading answers from it. By being free and in that sense constructing the type of agency that is immanent to the boundary we are exploring, we have the possibility to further discover who we are and the type of niche that is appropriate for such agent–environment coupling. In that sense, real gameplay highlights the limits of the so-called post-critical stance, and thus goes beyond the proof-of-concept of such artistic experiments, and outlines the very possibilities of agential action and such experiments in externalizing the dream. But the key point of real gameplay remains: it’s for reality itself to grasp the way in which it’s being (self)produced.

  • 1

    OMSK SOCIAL CLUB, “Worlding, Real Game Play, and Bleed”, Zoom meeting, 04/07/2023.

  • 2

    As Omsk tell us: “Even roleplaying is real if we think about authentic experience. Bleed [can be understood] as a tool for compassion, solidarity, trauma release, etc.” And: “What happens when you make a consensuous collective hallucination? […] Only when we agree on hallucination, could we possibly call it reality.”

  • 3

    GALLIMORE, R. Andrew, Reality Switch Technologies: Psychedelics as Tools for the Discovery and Exploration of New Worlds, Tokyo: Strange Worlds Press, 2022, p. 186.

  • 4

    FROESE, Tom, “Scientific Observation Is Socio-Materially Augmented Perception: Toward a Participatory Realism”, in: Philosophies, 7(37), 2022, p. 3, https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies7020037.

  • 5

    LATOUR, Bruno & WOOLGAR, Steve, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986, pp. 176–177.

  • 6

    FROESE, “Scientific Observation Is Socio-Materially Augmented Perception”, p. 5.

  • 7

    Ibid., p. 6.

  • 8

    Ibid., p. 9.

  • 9

    GUENIN-CARLUT, Avel, WHITE, Ben & SGANZERLA, Lorena, “The Cognitive Archaeology of Sociocultural Lifeforms”, in: ALIFE 2023, 2023, p. 14, https://doi.org/10.1162/isal_a_00670.

  • 10

    FROESE, Tom, “Scientific Observation Is Socio-Materially Augmented Perception”, p. 9.

  • 11

    BACH, Joscha [@Plinz], “I think enlightenment has to go a step further, by identifying the representational character of self and world, and also the representational structure of the observer’s experience of being everything that exists. Enlightenment is a realization of how experience is implemented”, X, 09/06/2023, https://twitter.com/Plinz/status/1667225636572901376/.

  • 12

    GÓMEZ-EMILSSON, Andrés [@algekalipso], “Many people have stumbled upon this insight, perhaps the latest notable person being @drmichaellevin, and it is absolutely essential to think about good futures and how to steer toward them: Standard game theory assumes…”, X, 16/12/2013, https://twitter.com/algekalipso/status/1735890343860834666.

  • 13

    FIELDS, Chris, “Physics as Information Processing”, YouTube, 18/05/2023, https://www.youtube.com/live/RpOrRw4EhTo?si=onuPdz_P14U9vJUy.

  • 14

    LEVIN, Michal, “Who Are You? What Defines You? What is the SELF?”, YouTube, 12/11/2023, https://youtu.be/iRPnZZppUVA?si=OEjtkMUWiMfPBvS-.

  • 15

    FIELDS, Chris & MANZOTTI, Riccardo, “There Is No Moon If We Close Our Eyes”, YouTube, 30/11/2018, https://youtu.be/7XYnNGOboe8?si=IsUbS2S_K8GoGNi5.

Maks Valenčič

Maks Valenčič is a second-order dreamer. He can be found on X (@MaksValencic) and Bluesky (@maxksx).