Bigger, better, faster, stronger. Entire industries have blossomed over the years by promising that they'll enhance your performance or make you a more efficient human being. Here, read this productivity blog, listen to this podcast by a best-selling author, drink this vitamin-infused energy drink, take this seminar! Become the better, real you. Only x easy payments of $US9.95. Did you think video games would be safe from this trend? Of course not.
We've already seen some of it. Red Bull markets itself to gamers by claiming to "take your game to a higher level". More commonly there is a bevy of gaming gear with special features meant to do the same: high DPI mice, mechanical keyboards with macro capabilities, gamepads with programmable buttons, even special gaming eyewear.
Drugs though? That's something new, gaming wise. Sure, arguably there are a number of drugs out there that can improve an experience-most famously, drugs with hallucinatory side-effects make a good complement to trippy games. However, taking drugs to become better at something is not novel. It's particularly common in fast-paced, demanding lifestyles and professions where you need to be able to keep up or have an edge. While I'm sure there are drugs out there that can improve how well you game, they weren't made with that explicit purpose — not like gaming themed binaural beats.
What's curious about binaural beats is that they're "digital drugs". There is no substance involved. You put on a pair of headphones, dim the lights and focus on the sound. Seems like something out of a sci-fi, eh? Or well, sounds kind of like bullshit too.
Binaural beats were discovered over 100 years ago by Heinrich Wilhelm Dove when he noticed that two tones played at different frequencies in each ear produced a new sound. The interesting thing about this is that the beat can influence brainwaves, with some arguing that it could have all sorts of effects — from reducing anxiety, to yes, simulating drugs.
Looking up these mind-altering drugs brought me to I-Doser, one of the major websites that sells binaural beat MP3s. They certainly go out of their way to explain why you can rest assured that yes, this is the Real Deal. From their website:
Our Binaural process has been refined with years of research and development. With thousands of satisfied users, the I-Doser Labs CDs, MP3s, and the I-Doser Application for PCs continue to lead the industry as the only safe and effective method to achieve a simulated mood or experience.
I-Doser for the PC is the most advanced computer application available to achieve a simulated mood or experience through the use of binaural beats.
That last bit makes it sound like it's something crazy high tech, not just, you know, some audio tracks. The website also explains that there are different levels of susceptibility to binaural beats, posing that some users may not feel the intended effects — and that that's normal. Naturally, it's difficult to read such a disclaimer without raising eyebrows, but you can't say they don't try to cover their bases.
While perusing the website, I found — to my surprise, since I wasn't looking for these to begin with — two gaming related binaural beats packs. One was called a "Game Enhancer." What it claims:
Designed to enhance your abilities for a specific game genre. As competitive as social and online gaming is, get the edge and frack your enemy and get those achievements. For hardcore and casual gamers alike.
It includes tracks for action, adventure, fighting, RPG and shooter genres. The other pack, more fascinatingly, was a part of a "Fictional Doses" set, which takes drugs from media and recreates them. There are two gaming related ones: bloodthistle from World of Warcraft, and skooma from Skyrim. This one claims to:
Simulate doses from your favourite movies, books, and games. Mixed with our advanced auditory pulses are soothing backtracks of ambient soundscapes to help the brain induce of state of focus, telekinesis, euphoria, and incoherence.
I think it's impossible to come across this and not become curious. I mean, c'mon. Digital drugs? Audio tracks that claim to be able to recreate drugs from awesome games? So I tried binaural beats, and what I found was surprising.
Being that I've been playing both the recent Halo and Call of Duty releases, it seemed logical to start with the audio track best suited for a shooter. This was also the binaural beat that I tried the most times.
All the MP3s are fairly long — you can expect to have to sit through a good number of 15-minute tracks. The shooter track threw me off because it starts off sounding almost like menu music you might find on your 3DS or Vita. That's not what I think about when I think "shooting people in the face".
What I felt while listening was a sense of floating through clouds — very uplifting, an almost fluffy sensation in my chest. If you've heard the Dustforce soundtrack, it would be right at home with that tracklist. But then! The track got somber, and the transition felt kind of shocking. Like my perfect little world just got destroyed with spacey alien sounds.
When it ended I certainly felt... different. I can't quite explain how. But when I started playing Call of Duty: Black Ops II, I did notice a couple of things. First, that the game seemed to move slower than I recalled. I had to up my sensitivity on my controller to feel like I was moving at a comfortable pace.
And normally while I play, I can feel anxious — you die quickly in Call of Duty, and this necessitates crazy reflexes. Sometimes that anxiety causes me to miss my shots completely in a wild attempt to react quickly. But I didn't feel any of that here; I was able to keep my cool and react accordingly. Did I play any better though? Not really.
I tried the shooter track a few more times in preparation to play Halo 4. It was here that I decided that despite being a "futuristic" drug (hereby defined as "drug that you take using technology"), binaural beats don't comply with modern sensitivities at all. Fifteen minutes of sitting in the dark doing nothing but listening to something? That is a test of patience.
Admittedly the reason I had to retry this one so many times was because I found it difficult to tame myself into following the directions. I'd read that not wholly focusing on the binaural beat could diminish the likelihood of an effect, so I wanted to make sure I avoided that. But it wasn't uncommon for me to be totally into the track, and then get caught with the urge to check how much time was left on it — only to be horrified that only 5 minutes had passed. Disappointed, I'd get sidetracked and do something like check Twitter.
But if I was a genius that was capable of creating a new futuristic tech drug, you can bet your arse I wouldn't make it so that you had to be super patient to only have a chance at maaaaybe feeling the effect. Ideally, the kick would come in fast.
Hell, even the idea of snorting your drugs is more appealing than having to sit patiently listening to your drugs. You might as well be asking me to coddle it. Hold it in my arms and tell it how pretty it looks and don't worry we'll both have fun on this journey. And then give it a kiss on the forehead and hold its hand while we stare into each others eyes. OK, this got weird.
In any case, I also tried the shooter one again because I wanted to enlist the help of friends who could tell me if they noticed anything different about my performance. Any time I did well, they attributed it to the binaural beats. Personally, I did feel that I played better, as I was capable of staying alive for longer and got multiple kills with ease... but this lasted, at best, a match or two. Any time I redid the shooter track, the same thing would happen: a couple of good matches followed by a return to normalcy. I'm not sure the time dedication to meditation is worth it, at least not with my lack of patience.
Then I tried the action track — I didn't have a fighting game, and dosing a binaural beat to be better at an RPG or an adventure game struck me as stupid. The action track is a strange one. It sounds like a natural setting, with audible running water, but there's a hum above it that seemed out of place. Eventually you hear a woman chanting in a background, along with flutes. It's a very seductive sound, all things told, that evoked a sense of "fever in the jungle."
For this one, I tried out the hyper-violent Hotline Miami. Previously I'd been stuck on a certain level for hours, getting so frustrated that my aggravation would give me headaches. I was amazed to find that this time I flew through the level with ease, chaining combos that I had never done before and straight up bulldozing through my enemies. That was awesome. But then I got stuck on the next level again, despite still being able to do neat tricks I wasn't able to before.
Here's the question I keep returning to: to what degree does expecting to be better at the game influence your performance? Obviously there's the possibility of the placebo effect; perhaps I did better because I believed that that's what the binaural beats were supposed to do. But I also can't help but wonder if being so hyper aware of how I was doing at all times messed me up.
Overthinking when you're supposed to be acting can hinder how well you do something. For best results — and this isn't just for video games, it's anything where you have to perform, like sports — you have to be able to balance going outside yourself and being in control. Like, you can't become so uncaring and loose about what you're doing without slipping, but you can't become paralysed with details either. It's tricky.
The fictional drugs pack on the other hand gave me a fascinating experience. Fortunately, in this situation, I wasn't necessarily expecting or looking for specific results, so I was able to instead just sit back and see what happened.
The first fictional drug I chose to test was skooma — a drug from Skyrim (or more accurately, The Elder Scrolls). Skooma was wonderful. Normally, I'm a ridiculously anxious person that can't stop thinking, and it's not uncommon to have people tell me to stop being so serious or to relax. But I can't.
Amazingly, listening to the skooma track was calming and meditative. My mind cleared and I just felt... peaceful. Mid-track I even started feeling a warmth in my stomach that reminded me a little of what feeling loved is like. I think this is insane because even when on mild-altering substances, I can't get rid of the overly eager part of my personality. But skooma calmed me the hell down.
But! Skooma has effects that are already detailed in Skyrim. You can take it and see what happens. The Elder Scrolls Wiki says users "pass through bouts of euphoria followed by protracted lethargy." I don't think I felt euphoria, though I guess I felt lethargic at the end. So maybe skooma doesn't work the way it's supposed to, but I'm still a fan.
Bloodthistle, meanwhile, I genuinely disliked. It's not bloodthistle's fault, though.
I tried it a little after trying skooma — after peaceful bliss. That's a hard feeling to top. I've not really played World of Warcraft much, but the Wowhead Wiki says that Bloodthistle is an item that "increases spell power by a small amount for 10 minutes." So, something empowering, right?
Well, the track felt rather stark in comparison to skooma. Enough that I felt a tad upset, actually! My pulse got faster and I started breathing a little harder. The sound felt like a battlecry and I started thinking about my problems again, which isn't pleasant. But eventually it felt like something in my chest was boiling, if not bubbling. I guess you could say it was "determination." Like I could concentrate on something wholeheartedly — to write this, really. And then when the track ended some of my muscles were twitching.
But how much of this experience can be referred to as a "drug" really? It's no secret that sensory deprivation, like proper binaural beat dosing requires, can make you experience drug-like effects. Hallucinations, for example. The Ganzfeld Procedure in particular is famous for this. Sound can also be provocative on its own, without being some special tone that alters your brainwaves. Who hasn't felt something while listening to a song? Granted, what I felt while listening to, say, skooma, was deeper than things I've felt while listening to normal music.
But binaural beats weren't more evocative than listening to something that elicits an ASMR response. That's something that, similarly to binaural beats, science hasn't really given us a conclusive answer on. To put the phenomena plainly, ASMR is when you get tingles and euphoria from certain sensory triggers — common ones are whispers, or listening to the sound of rain. Personally I experience it with a number of words, like "crush." Maybe binaural beats aren't so unique after all.
So, verdict? The people on the I-Doser forums can't seem to agree on whether or not binaural beats actually have an effect. Looking at a poll with over 1k people, there's an almost equal divide between responses like "It blows my mind!" "Some doses work, some don't" and "It is a complete placebo, I never felt anything." Those that posted about their experiences were highly enthusiastic, even when describing doses of things that I tried.
If you ask me, I don't think I'd recommend the game enhancers — especially not at their current pricepoints. It's four freaking tracks for nearly 20 bucks, and either they don't have a noticeable effect, or it's a short-lived one.
But the fictional drugs pack has made me highly interested in the more traditional binaural beats, like the ones that are supposed to mimic actual drugs or more esoteric sensations ("hand of god" or "first love.") Not enough to pay for them, but enough to go on YouTube and see what curiosities I can find — binaural beats, ASMR or otherwise.