Video Games

Timothy Leary's Video Games

More than just Mind Mirror

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Back in the '80s I sometimes played Mind Mirror, a clever computer game designed by Timothy Leary. Apparently he also worked on several other games that never got released, including a Neuromancer adaptation that he hoped would feature art by Keith Haring, music by Devo, photography by Helmut Newton, writing by William Burroughs, and a character based on David Byrne. The New York Times has the scoop:

The sky above the port was the color of Television, or Talking Heads, or one of those CBGB bands.

Last week, at a reception celebrating the opening of the [Timothy Leary] archive to researchers, the library displayed a monitor showing a continual loop of samples from the dozen or so games Leary developed in the 1980s, alongside cases containing paper documents relating to his famous LSD experiments. The games were recovered from the roughly 375 computer disks included in the Leary archive, and will be viewable—and in some cases, playable—on a specially equipped computer in the library's rare books and manuscripts division.

"The games were still in development, so they're buggy," warned Donald Mennerich, the digital archivist who led the project.

But Leary's games, Mr. Mennerich added, are also right in line with some of the ideas about interactivity that prevail in digital culture today.

"Leary brought an angle of psychological interaction to this idea of interactive gaming, this idea of reprogramming your brain," he said. "It didn't catch on then, but he was pretty far ahead of the curve."

Read the rest here. I'd be curious to learn how much of the design work Leary himself did on these projects, and how much came from the actual programmers and other collaborators. Whatever the answer to that might be, Leary's software is an interesting stop on the trail that leads from the psychedelia of the '60s to the cyberculture of the present—a winding path from LSD to GTA.

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  1. a Neuromancer adaptation that he hoped would feature art by Keith Haring, music by Devo, photography by Helmut Newton, writing by William Burroughs, and a character based on David Byrne.

    That would’ve been something for the ages. I imagine there are no contributions in the Haring, Newton and Burroughs archives.

    1. Something for the ages in terms of being horrible crap, yes.

      Haring was a hack.

      Newton could photography, but I don’t see the application there.

      Burroughs was 20+ years past his sell-by date at that point.

      And David Byrne, while a fine musician, has again no real connection to Neuromancer.

      So, 1 out of 5.

      1. What about Devo?

        1. Depends how late in the 80s we’re talking. Much past ’81 my expectations would be pretty low.

          1. Yeah, one of the last records I remember was “New Traditionalists”. I was in junior high and a couple of friends actually bought the plastic hair hats and New Traditionalist t-shirts. It was pretty hilarious.

            I think the next record was a good one, too.

      2. Burroughs was 20+ years past his sell-by date at that point.

        His ’80s novels The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands are actually quite good. Dead Roads might be my favorite of his books.

  2. Leary brought an angle of psychological interaction to this idea of interactive gaming, this idea of reprogramming your brain,” he said. “It didn’t catch on then, but he was pretty far ahead of the curve.

    All games that are worthwhile to play program your mind. Games have stringent rules, the human mind has some innate survival rules to run on, but not much more. Go Fish, dominoes, Super Mario all program the mind. I some doubts that the average human can be reprogrammed after the age 15-20. It’s all bug fixes after that.

    1. Plasticity goes down but is still there as we age. As I understand it, the trick is that if you stop learning, you won’t be able to start again.

      1. I think it’s important to understand the difference between a game of skill (chess) and a game of chance (dice) and that the game of life is somewhere in between. I doubt any new game will be invented that will make a child or adult understand this any better than they do right now.

  3. a winding path from LSD to GTA.

    There is a mission in GTA V where Micheal’s son doses Micheal with I think LSD or some other hallucinogen. His “trip” includes an alien abduction and a brightly colored free fall over Los Santos.

  4. Keith Haring should not be allowed anywhere near anything related to Neuromancer. WTF.

    Yes, I know he’s dead.

  5. I sat in on a 2 hour speech that Leary gave at a sci-fi con in 1991 (may have been 1992). For two hours he seemingly rambled on about “virtual reality” and human-computer interaction over a network of interconnected computers. Every now and again he’d take a tangent left or right but by the end of it he wrapped up all the threads.

    In retrospect it is fascinating just how prescient about technology he was. Also amazing is how utterly engaging his train-wreck of a speech was.

    1. I remember reading an interview with him around that time where he was talking about virtual reality and interactivity and that sort of thing and how computers had given him a language to discuss consciousness that just wasn’t available in the 60s, when the best thing they had was Hindu philosophy.

      Fascinating guy.

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