“I had to grin and bear an hour of shonkily erected rooms that induced neither happiness nor dopamine”

 (ES Magazine)
(ES Magazine)

In the dying embers of my heavily pregnant state, I thought I’d add even more weight to my cankles by dragging the fam into town for Dopamine Land, one of many made-for-the-’Gram experiences that people apparently crave. A friend had recommended it on the basis that it happily distracted her toddler for more than half an hour and breaks up the tedium of mindlessly pushing them on the local and inevitably broken swings.

Glancing at the ‘Dopamine Land — a Multisensory Experience’ website, billed as an ‘interactive museum’ geared towards the ‘limitless imagination of your inner child’, it was the popcorn room and pillow fight room that piqued my daughter’s interest and compelled me to buy a family group ticket. I’m of course now mortified because both could have been easily recreated at home with a 70p bag of kernels and the many, many pillows we have owing to the ridiculous emperor-sized bed that my partner insists is the only place he can sleep.

I had to grin and bear an hour of shonkily erected rooms that induced neither happiness nor dopamine

The word ‘dopamine’ was something of a pandemic-era buzzword, mainly attached to dopamine dressing because we needed a jolt of something bright or sassy, but also because at times of stress our brains release dopamine as a way of making us more resilient. Upon entering Dopamine Land’s first room, we were told to look at one another in a room (you’re herded around in groups) and ‘disconnect from reality’. But as a side note, we were also told that phones were encouraged — because their idea of a ‘world of happiness’ involves many, MANY selfies in a Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirror rip-off, light-bulb-filled cupboard, that again I could probably reconstruct in my garden shed.

There is of course nothing wrong with for-the-’Gram experiences that transport you elsewhere. There’s a good reason why Kusama’s installation has consistently sold out: the scale and ambition is impressive. Pre-Covid I vastly enjoyed international art collective TeamLab’s expansive exhibitions in Japan and China, utilising technology that was truly out of this world. You’d stand mesmerised as walls of digital flora and fauna surrounded you.

I won’t go further into the details of an experience where I had to grin and bear an hour of shonkily erected rooms that induced neither happiness nor dopamine. The child just about liked it but enjoyed the random ping-pong table in the ‘alcholic bubble tea’ bar (two things that shouldn’t go together) a lot more. It’s a sad state of affairs when someone thought a ‘popcorn room’ would approximate happiness. One person was genuinely overjoyed that they could grab a bag of popcorn (cost of production: 0.00001p) to munch on, smell and watch a screen projection of popping kernels, ignoring the fact that we had just spanked £20 on a ticket.

Experience economy is winning, though. Look at Secret Cinema’s recent £88 million sale to US-based TodayTix Group, despite it weathering social media backlashes. Ditto for the litany of escape rooms, themed cocktail bars and VR spaces that have popped up and off in the city. If the Metaverse is the near-future way of escaping en masse, then the litany of physical escape experiences in London reflects our present need to tell ourselves we’re ‘filling’ time in ways that may or may not be meaningful. Frankly, I’m gunning for the reality experience. Like sitting in an energy-capped room with a strong mug of real tea, watching Tory MP meltdown memes on repeat. Reality, it turns out, is as farcical as constructed escapism.