It’s the year 1885. Psychiatry is still in its infancy. You are a member of the British Lunacy Commission that has to control the big mental institutions. The circumstances in the asylums are often miserable. But you’re worried more about something else at the moment: since a few weeks you’ve sometimes started hearing things… that aren’t there. Otherwise you feel perfectly fine, but you’re quite sure that your colleagues might hold different opinions on that…
‘Paracusia’ is a game that introduces you to the world of auditory hallucinations. Often benign, sometimes scary. And always hard to hide. Even when it’s really necessary…
‘Paracusia’ was made together with Tom Rijntjes for the course ‘Sound, Space and Interaction’ at Media Technology, Leiden. The original idea was to record the sound in the environment and play it back to the user, changing it and adding to it with the program Max MSP in a way that resembles different kinds of auditory hallucinations. Additionally, we measure the galvanic skin response (GSR) to see how nervous the user is. When the user is relaxed, the ‘hallucinations’ are few and far between and quite benign: songs and ringing telephones. When the user gets more stressed, the sounds are warped or a hissing sound is added. Even more stress causes more frightening sounds to be heard, like commands and screaming people.
One of the goals of ‘Paracusia’ is to let people experience what auditory hallucinations can be like and what causes them. Auditory hallucinations are surprisingly common, with estimates ranging from 5 to 20 % of the general population affected. The majority of these are otherwise in good mental health, contrary to the common belief that there is a strong association between hallucinations and psychosis or schizophrenia. Many of these ‘benign’ hallucinations have been shown to be correlated with the onset of deafness, other under-stimulation of the senses, general hypnagogic (sleep-onset) hallucinations, stress, sleep deprivation, drug-use and consumption of coffee, to name a few.
The ‘Hearing Voices Movement’ was established in 1988 to counter the common lack of knowledge, by health care professionals and the public alike, about these kinds of hallucinations. However, a lot of psychotic patients dó experience auditory hallucinations as well, albeit coping with them in a different manner. Sadly, many patients, especially older ones, keep their hallucinations a secret from caretakers, because they are afraid of being labeled ‘crazy’. If you want to know more, I can recommend ‘Hallucinations’ or ‘Musicophilia’ by Oliver Sacks.
When we were asked to create a game based on our system for the Playful Arts Festival, we wanted to convey something of this fear to the players. Therefore, we created a ‘Mafia’-like game set in 19th century England. Players take part in a meeting by the Lunacy Commission, as real historical characters. They have a short description of their character with among other things a reason for why that character could be having hallucinations (for instance “drinks a lot of coffee”).
All wear headphones and are connected to a GSR device, but only one hears the ‘hallucinations’ and has to hide this from the rest. This can be quite difficult as the sounds can get pretty distracting, especially when you’re already stressed out (remember, the ‘hallucinations’ become more frequent and scary when you’re stressed), and sometimes make it hard to hear what is being said. The rest of the group tries to watch who behaves suspect. In the end, everybody votes for the person they suspect the most, and it is revealed who has the ‘hallucinations’. The other players can then also try them out and ask questions.