A NEW VIDEO GAME'S subliminal messages raise some old questions about media's effects on the subconscious. -----------------------------------------------------------------
CALISTOGA, Calif. - First came the command, "Eat Popcorn," flashed on a movie screen too fast for the naked eye to see. Then the pronouncement, "It's OK for you to be relaxed," its endless reprise on a self-help cassette tape masked by the lapping of waves.
Now, into the murky, quirky nether world of the subliminal, where information is conveyed below the threshold of conscious perception, enter the video game "Endorfun."
A puzzle game that aspires to be the next "Tetris," the goal of "Endorfun" is to match the colored sides of a moving cube to the corresponding squares on a series of grids.
By inserting 100 subaudible messages in the background music, "Endorfun's" programmers and its publisher, Time Warner Inc., say they hope "to uplift the heart and mind of its users."
And if - after subliminally absorbing such notions as "I am powerful" and "I am at peace" - players are uplifted to the point of telling their friends to run out and buy the game, so much the better.
The subliminal messages - Time Warner prefers the term "positive affirmations" will all be printed on the box.
Still, the game raises questions about the use of subliminals in digital media, a new and perhaps more potent platform for a controversial method of mass communication that dates to the 1950s, when advertising executive James Vicary flashed the subliminal messages "Hungry? Eat popcorn" and "Drink Coke" during screenings at a drive-in.
Moviegoers, he said later, bought nearly 60 percent more popcorn than usual and almost 20 percent more Coke.
Subliminals are taking new shape in the digital age. The relative ease with which messages can be inserted into computer codes, combined with the increasing hours people are spending in front of computer screens, lead some psychologists and media experts to believe that the potential for mind control - voluntary or involuntary - is greater in the new media than in any that came before.
The Federal Communications Commission has banned subliminal messages in broadcast media since the 1970s, when controversy erupted over a TV ad for a memory game called Husker Du that displayed the words, "Get it," on the screen for a fraction of a second.
But software remains unregulated.
The stigma associated with trying to influence behavior covertly has always inhibited media firms from using subliminals - or at least from admitting it. But technologists note that, in digital media, subliminals would be both easier to create and harder to detect.
At a time when there is already a creeping discomfort with the dominant role of technology in daily life, Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, says fear of such subliminal messages "plays right into this growing unease around our information tools."
Gerald Rafferty, co-author of "Subliminal: The New Channel to Personal Power" and founder of the Institute for Subliminal Studies in Santa Monica, has a more positive outlook:
"The computer medium is the perfect medium for subliminal messages because there are so many ways to mask them that you're not worrying about the things you are with film and video. This could really be a big new field."
Screen savers, those images of floating toasters and Energizer bunnies that pop up on inactive computer monitors, appear to be attractive places for subliminal messages.
Capistrano Beach-based Interloc Design Group has developed a "subliminal module" that allows clients to insert into screen savers text or images that flash at 1/50th of a second.
In a demonstration, Interloc founder Jeff Oster displays an apparently black screen with some random images bouncing around it.
Then, with a click of a mouse, he slows down the rate at which a message is flashing to reveal the blinking word: "Sex."
The theory is that the subconscious mind - especially in the more relaxed "alpha" and "theta" states - is more susceptible to suggestion.
Messages purportedly embedded in heavy-metal songs by Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne were blamed for the suicides of young listeners during two highly publicized trials in 1990. The evidence was deemed insufficient, but separately the judge in the Priest case ruled that subliminals are not protected by the First Amendment.
Several grocery-store chains have acknowledged playing "do not steal" subliminals under music to discourage shoplifting, and rumors persist that U.S. troops slipped subliminals in the rock music they blared at Panamanian leader Gen. Manuel Noriega in an attempt to drive him to surrender.
Director William Friedkin has acknowledged inserting subliminal images in his 1973 movie "The Exorcist" and uses them in his upcoming "Jade" to "induce an emotional connection in the audience that they may or may not be aware of."
Only recently have computer software and video games come to be seen as mass media in their own right. But experts who have studied subliminals say there is reason to believe that their natural addictiveness may make them especially potent vehicles for the transmission of subliminals. Inspiring addiction is, after all, the key to a good video game, which unlike TV shows and movies must move someone to play again and again.
"The video game rivets attention," says Howard Shevrin, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. "The person is attending very intently to the screen and therefore is more susceptible to the registrations of the subliminals."
Shevrin warns that positive subliminal messages can have unintended effects.
"If you think because you put positive messages into a game or a movie or whatever that the effect will be uniformly positive, that's just not true. The effect is unpredictable, because the unconscious mind works in highly idiosyncratic, individual ways. This idea of influencing our moods, our thoughts, our feelings with our subconscious minds is a risky undertaking. You don't fool around with the unconscious."