Drug Mythbusting: Far Cry 3 and Psychedelic Mushrooms

[Originally published April 21, 2016]

Recently – for my Drugs and Human Behavior course – I was assigned a paper centered on the examination of a pop culture drug myth. I decided to apply this concept to Far Cry 3. The following is the body I came up with. I hope you enjoy.

Psychedelics – specifically mushrooms – hold a deeply mythical place in our culture and – when I say ‘mythical’ – I mean mythical. There’s all sorts of theories when you parse through the fringes of archaeology, anthropology, and also theology. Mushrooms maybe came from space, on an asteroid. It’s possible – fungus can survive in the vacuum of space. Another theory: Mushrooms may have contributed to the evolution of the human race. Again: it’s possible – drugs have influenced the cultural structures of many peoples (e.g. peyote and North American native populations, Ayahuasca with South American native populations), and evolutionary forces are, in many ways, tied to long-lasting cultural patterns. Mushrooms have even been attributed to major tentpoles of Christianity. Some have produced illustrations depicting the Fruit of the First Sin as the Amanita Muscaria. Notably, the fruit that biblically represents the human race’s acquisition of knowledge fits – in a religious sense – into the evolution theory. The Amanita Muscaria also appears in historical theory concerning the origin of Christmas. While it’s no secret that Christmas was a Pagan holiday appropriated by early Christianity, the mushroom theory still remains hidden to most. Amanita muscaria commonly grows underneath pine trees, is red and white, and has even been depicted on old, Pagan ‘Christmas cards.’ Some – like alternative archaeologist Graham Hancock – believe that this is where we get the iconography, under-the-tree placement of presents, color scheme, and greeting traditions of modern Christmas practices.

Another popular myth about the Amanita Muscaria is that it’s the inspiration for the Mario mushroom. Myth or fact – there’s a clear resemblance.

While theories like this are – certainly – the origin of the mythos surrounding mushrooms, they are – in no way – representative of the mushroom’s perception within popular culture. The heavy emphasis on the tie between mushrooms and spirituality has, however, bolstered popular perception that mushrooms are some sort of spiritual device, capable of expanding one’s understanding of themselves – in a metaphysical sense.

For an accurate representation of mushroom’s presence in the collective consciousness, let’s look at Far Cry 3. It’s a sound choice – a AAA, blockbuster game, designed and written to be consumed by the masses. It also includes a drug sequence that was so popular – so representative of the current cultural mushroom zeitgeist – that, now, every single Far Cry game released since 3 has included hallucinogenic drug sequences. As such, the Far Cry series has become something of an anomaly – a tentpole gaming franchise where hallucinogenic drug usage has become an accepted staple. No media outrage, no Moms Against Far Cry. Nothing. I guess you could say that public reaction to the drug usage in these games has been a… far cry from the norm.

The myth Far Cry 3 suggests is a diluted form of the spiritual historical connotations of mushrooms – namely: mushrooms result in a spiritual journey, wherein one can confront and interpret their demons. Each trip you experience is required – we’re talking critical path here – because they all have to do with highlighting the progression of the gaming power fantasy, culminating in the murder of your enemy. Literally. These sequence of trips begin with a character by the name of Dr. Earnhardt who gets you all sorts of messed up on psychedelics. “See anything you like? I like the red ones myself. The purples will give you a lift on a grey day. Everything is excellent, really.” The mission is called “Mushrooms in the Deep.” The trip is fairly benign, and grounded in your surroundings, but calls upon your hatred of the man who killed your brother – a pirate by the name of Vaas. In the culmination of these trips, your surroundings become much more surreal, and punctuate a wholly bizarre boss fight with the Vaas character. You end your trip by stabbing Vaas – upwards of 9 or 10 times – in the sternum. He is – in three words – super duper dead. It’s significant that his death occurs within the trip. He is – for all intents and purposes – the true nemesis of this game. He killed your brother, and now you’ve fulfilled the revenge plot. You’ve overcome a personal demon that has haunted you, and – in the logic of revenge narratives – you have now, somehow, ‘grown.’ While couched in some gruesome revenge narrative logic – namely: murder = better person – the idea that psychedelics can be used as some sort of personal, spiritual healer by way of introspective, surreal self-examination is a common myth that pervades our culture – as well as the discourse surrounding psychedelics. It is also – it would seem – likely to be true.

Okay, I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here, but LOOK at these mushrooms in Pianta Village from Super Mario Sunshine. The resemblance is uncanny.

Many of the people who belong to psychedelic communities swear by studies such as the following: A. Novotney (2010), with the American Psychological Association, found that cancer patients given controlled doses of psilocybin – the psychedelic compound found in mushrooms such as the Amanita Muscaria – would improve mood, decrease anxiety, and assist in the bolstering of bonds with friends and family. This would, however, often plateau after six months, and was administered alongside regular therapy sessions.

There are some theories as to why this might happen. One comes from the fact that the measurement of blood flow in the brains of patients administered with psilocybin show that blood flow decreases in the Default Mode Network – responsible for reflection on the self and others. Monthrie, (2014) notes that the lack of blood flow restricts the DMN, which seems to break down the psychological barriers it may impose. For example, some people with depression have a rigid, negative perception of themselves, others, or a combination of the two – as a result of their DMN cultivating those perceptions within themselves. When psilocybin restricts the blood flow to the DMN, it begins to function at a decreased capacity, loosening the rigidity of those negative perceptions. This is why some researchers – and many mushroom users – claim that mushrooms are such effective tools of self-reflection – they seem to chemically allow a person to examine themselves in a broader fashion, with fewer mental hurdles to clear.

So: mushrooms clearly have a positive effect on a person’s mental well-being, BUT – was Far Cry 3 correct? Well, almost. It – as do many, many people – makes the mistake of conflating mushrooms with all psychedelics. Drugs like LSD and MDMA – both of which have been shown to have a positive effect on those suffering from PTD (Oehen, 2012). The positive effects of mushrooms, however, center around depression, rather than the PTSD of Far Cry 3. Seeing your brother killed is traumatic – and would likely cause a person to become depressed – but would probably not be effective in overcome the psychological response to the intimate violence you had seen. Rather, it would treat the feelings that it left you with, as opposed to the many psychological triggers and barriers of PTSD.

In short, Far Cry is almost right, as is pop culture. Though mushrooms are certainly psychedelic in nature, they – by no means – share the same chemical makeup as other psychedelics, and – therefore – have different effects.

Myth: Kinda busted.

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