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    This Is Your Brain While Videogaming Stoned

    Written by

    Jagger Gravning

    Image: Shutterstock

    Pot and video games have long been bound together in hazy, wedded bliss—as well as in compulsion and codependency. Many a World of Warcraft binger has been found in the darkest hours of the night with clouds of sweet, milk-white smoke curling around him, a bong next to the keyboard.

    But the way these lovers, games and weed, commingle has only rarely been studied, and when done so, usually exclusively in the context of substance abuse and how it relates to what is known as PVP: “problem video game playing.”

    But a more global concern: What is happening to our minds as we welcome these dual pursuits into our lives with arms spread wide? Are we blunting the edges of our perception as much as it feels like we are when high as a kite and lobbing incendiary grenades at fools in Call of Duty? Are weed and games the founding fathers of a new idiocracy?

    In order to undertake some tests of my own—with a little help from my friends—I took advantage of a seemingly very temporary state in American history: quasi-legal marijuana delivery.

    The Acquisition

    Recreational marijuana is legal to use, carry, and purchase in Washington state, where I live. But, paradoxically, the only establishments that are legally allowed to sell you that pot are not yet open. So as bureaucrats continue to worm their way from voter mandated legalization towards the promised opening of licensed pot stores, a group of merry men with codenames such as the Fox, the Otter, the Crow, and the Hawk have appeared to bring the newly-won right of recreational weed to the people of Seattle. You can find them on Yelp.

    Are we blunting the edges of our perception as much as it feels like we are when high as a kite and lobbing incendiary grenades at fools in Call of Duty? Are weed and games the founding fathers of a new idiocracy?

    These guys are not licensed to sell. Still, they operate out in the open, explicitly advertising on their site that purchasers don’t even need a medical marijuana card. And the Seattle police are ignoring them—at least until the licensed vendors’ doors finally open.

    I called Winterlife Coop and was connected with a man who asked me for my number and address, saying a driver in my area would call me back in 20-40 minutes. A man identifying himself as The Fox called back from a different number, and we met at a nearby parking lot. The weed was sold in quarters, the packages smartly branded with Winterlife’s company logo and labeled individually by strain.

    Once I had the weed in my possession, some friends and I began our study on how weed affected interaction with digital worlds, in an effort to decide if a night spent smoking and gaming was as much of a brain-numbing experience as one might assume. We played a variety of video games sober, first, recording our scores. Then we got really stoned. And then we played the same games again, comparing our pre- and post-marijuana scores.

    Photo courtesy the author

    Weird Science

    Our sack of marijuana was labeled God Bud. Before we had even smoked it, just from opening the package, its cloying stench became an entity, possessing the apartment. It was an indica strain, one meant to sedate/couch-lock you as opposed to sativa's supposed energizing quality. (Explore the subtleties of both, along with the endocannabinoid system, in Motherboard's documentary High Country.) I cannot detect the fine differences between weed, but Winterlife’s site describes each strain’s qualities with loving poetic nuance.

    Even with some patchy state legalization, the federal illegality of weed has both hampered and colored its study. It is still considered a Schedule 1 drug, higher even than cocaine, which is only Schedule 2.

    In order to study the effects of weed, researchers first need to acquire it. To that end, they need approval from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, or NIDA, whose mission statement sounds like it should be plastered on some World War II propaganda poster depicting a giant boot crushing people. The agency even goes so far as to unnecessarily capitalize the word “nation,” reinforcing the aura of wartime patriotism:

    NIDA’s mission is to lead the Nation in bringing the power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction.

    So these are the men deciding which marijuana studies get approved. According to an estimate by Dr. Sanjay Gupta in a CNN article he penned, only about six percent of the studies published in the US National Library of Medicine investigate the potential benefits of marijuana.

    They need approval from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, or NIDA, whose mission statement sounds like it should be plastered on some World War II propaganda poster depicting a giant boot crushing people.

    We were about to test for ourselves how deleterious, or beneficial, marijuana could be on practical brain function and complex tasks. It's an issue that's ever more practical, with both medicinal and recreational weed becoming more prevalent. Are we all going to start dying in blazed car crashes and household stoner accidents? 

    Actually, despite how you feel when stoned, the objective studies on marijuana’s impairment on driving are not as conclusive as one would think.

    One study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs tried to assess sex difference in driving while high on marijuana and found none. The researchers on behind the study also did not find that the stoned drivers operated the vehicle any more dangerously than the placebo group, other than the stoned drivers slowed the vehicle 3-5 percent more during segments where attention was divided. This additional slowing of the vehicle seems to have been a self-aware compensation on the part of the subjects in deference to their altered state.

    Regardless, the study found that they drove as safely as the placebo group. Per the study:

    The present study’s subtle finding of decreased speed under the influence of acute marijuana is generally consistent with the literature, which has found that marijuana’s effects on driving can be subtle…and not always replicated in studies... In [a] review of the literature prior to 1995, 45% of driving simulator studies showed no impairment from marijuana within the first hour of use. More cautious driving behaviors were found in several studies.

    Despite this “subtle” impact on driving, the researchers point out in their conclusion that “it is anticipated” that many teenagers and young adults who are driving under the influence of marijuana will also be using phones, listening to music, and texting. These youths might also combine alcohol with their marijuana. And those things will definitely affect driving.

    At the same time, suggesting that marijuana is potentially dangerous because of factors outside the scope of the study seems a bit bizarre, however well-founded the point actually is. No one's going to say we should ban phones because sometimes people recklessly use them with cars, right?

    Footnotes are listed immediately after the paper's conclusion. The first footnote reads: “This study was supported by a National Institute of Drug Abuse grant.”

    Driving Simulators, Video Games, and Cannabis as Performance Enhancer

    If the notion of a group of bros conducting their own homegrown study with a bag of weed and a copy of Spelunky seems facile, we shouldn’t forget that this is basically what the study above was doing, even if that’s not how they characterized it. Their driving simulator was technically a video game:

    Image: NIH

    Another driving-on-marijuana test literally used a laptop and a joystick. In fact, one of the questions on that first study’s questionnaire asks how much experience the subjects have with video games, evidently assuming that is an impactful factor.

    So our own little stoner video game test has real world applications.

    The study that used the joystick and laptop is somewhat flippantly titled “Weed or Wheel!” (exclamation mark theirs). The researchers theorize on one of the challenges facing a stoned driver:

    Cannabis increases… self-oriented mental activity. Subjects are more attracted by intrapersonal stimuli (‘self’) and fail to attend to task performance, leading to an insufficient allocation of task oriented resources and to sub-optimal performance.

    “Self-oriented mental activity” definitely sounds familiar. But it’s easy for anyone to let their mind slip away from uneventful driving. What about users who smoke to deepen their engagement with, say, a challenging video game? A game that requires intense focus? I’ve had this sensation in the past, being more deeply tuned-in and “inside” the game when high. I felt that I was doing better, but had never objectively tested myself.

    While the idea that marijuana might actually help in complex tasks sounds instantly ludicrous, it is one supported by some research. But the thing is, you have to look for that research in a different place.

    You don’t look at the studies trying to connect marijuana with depression, so-called "problem video game playing," or bad driving. You have to look at the studies trying to test whether marijuana should be banned from sports on the grounds that it is a performance enhancing drug.

    Because in those studies, it turns out, marijuana enhances both the mind and the body, giving the user an unfair advantage. From Cannabis and Sports:

    Cannabis could be performance enhancing in sports that require greater concentration… improvement of vision for goalkeepers and muscle relaxation… cannabis smoking reduces anxiety, allowing athletes to better perform under pressure and to alleviate stress experienced before and during competition.

    In researching widespread cannabis use among university athletes it was also found that: 

    The higher the students’ level of competition, the more cannabis was employed to enhance performance… Athletes under the influence of cannabis indicate that their thoughts flow more easily and their decision making and creativity is enhanced... Health professionals have encountered athletes including gymnasts, divers, football players and basketball players who claim smoking cannabis before play helps them to focus better.

    And thus:

    Clearly, cannabis induces euphoria, improves self-confidence, induces relaxation and steadiness... Cannabis enhances sensory perception, decreases respiratory rate and increases heart rate; increased bronchodilation may improve oxygenation of the tissues... based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance enhancing.

    Still, it is recognized that the drug offers contradictory effects, based evidently on dosage; relaxation, but also panic attacks; enhanced sensory perception, but sometimes confusion, sedation or hyperactivity. “This spectrum of behavioral effects is unique, preventing classification of the drug as a stimulant, sedative, tranquilizer or hallucinogen,” the study adds.

    In a TED talk, Dr. Gary Wenk mentions that a puff of marijuana a day restarts neurogenesis in old brains, improving their ability to remember and learn. Since marijuana also seems to disrupt memory and learning immediately after use, I contacted Dr. Wenk, asking him if such contradictory effects were unique to marijuana.

    “In fact, there are numerous examples of such apparently contradictory actions of drugs,” he responded by email. “With regard to marijuana, the effects vary according to the age of the person using the drug, their gender, past drug use and genetic differences. Some drugs produce quite different effects depending upon the dose or the time of day when the drug is taken. This is why it is so difficult to predict how each person will respond to any given drug.”

    The Results

    Myself and several friends, “Dutch Mogul,” Ben, and Brian (who joined us later), tried to pick a variety of games, focusing on Spelunky, as the levels are procedurally generated. This means the levels are randomly created by an algorithm, so that you never encounter the same level twice, which prevents memorization from influencing results on repeated attempts.

    We played multiple times sober. Dutch Mogul’s sober average score was 83,684. Stoned, he scored 198,250. My sober average was 34,925; and stoned, 46,600. Ben’s sober was 52,316; stoned, he beat the entire game, including the hidden final Hell level, which he had never done before, with a total score of 413,525.

    Here are our other test scores:

    Super Hexagon (average of three plays sober, three plays stoned. The game score is a timer to see how many seconds you can last before hitting the walls of a spiraling maze.)

    • Me sober 4.03 seconds / stoned: 4.03 seconds
    • Dutch Mogul sober: 3.44 seconds / stoned: 5.19 seconds
    • Ben sober: 5.92 seconds / stoned: 6.38 seconds
    • Brian sober: 2.32 seconds / stoned: 3.87 seconds

    Tetris DS

    • Me sober: 13,766 / stoned: 15,360
    • Dutch Mogul sober: 40,338 / stoned: 97,462
    • Ben sober: 65,095 / stoned: 56,447
    • Brian sober: 18,860 / stoned: 15,843 (Brian said he felt he was doing much better stoned at Tetris, and was surprised to see at the end that he was not. “I thought I was in control of my own destiny,” he said dejectedly.)

    Pac-Man Championship Edition CX+

    • Me sober: 989,120 / stoned: 968,540.
    • Dutch Mogul sober: 558,830 / stoned: 635,350
    • Ben sober: 1,104,470 /  stoned: 836,200 

    Along the way, I jotted down a few notes on my experience as I was high:

    ...felt more emotionally engaged, emotions may help with concentration… [there are several more sentences, but unfortunately I’m not able to decipher my stoned paper-and pencil scrawl.]

    And then:

    Feel like I’m focusing more. I felt like I was sleepy earlier but the paranoia of the weed woke me up. On my Pac-Man run I was sure I was masterfully doing better than my sober run, but the score says I was the same.

    Brian goes into the second phase of our test. 

    I think it’s fair to say that despite playing stoned after many fatiguing hours of game testing, in the groggy hours after midnight, our scores were still around the same and often better than when sober.

    Don’t misunderstand: When I say that, I don’t mean to suggest, by extension, that you're fine to get behind the wheel baked. (Personally, I don’t drive anymore at all. This is because I found myself getting stressed after hot hours in stalled traffic, my mood growing gruesome to the point that I was a danger to myself and others on the road so I sold my Jeep. I’m less stressed now, and that’s a good thing!)

    Yet it’s hard to argue that getting high and playing games is muting all of your higher faculties. In fact, your mind during altered-state gaming appears to be operating at a very sophisticated level of engagement. Game on.

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