So let me introduce you to Sigmund Steampunk, my avatar on Second Life. I have already learned that there is more to Second Life and avatars than learning how to “walk” in the virtual world. One of the lessons came from my supervisor, whom I value and idealize immensely, and who has only begun to learn about avatars and SL through our work together. So the other day I emailed her and included the above photo of Sigmund, mentioning that since we’d been discussing it I thought she’d find it interesting to see what I was talking about. She did, and then she lightheartedly mentioned that Sigmund looked like a slightly anorexic version of Ellen DeGeneres…
Lesson #1 Avatar Cathexis
People who experience avatars from the “outside in” don’t always understand immediately how cathected the user can be to them. When I say cathexis, I am referring to the psychoanalytic concept of emotional and or libidinal investment in the object. In most MMORPGs and virtual worlds the user has some to a lot of input into how to design their avatar. The result? The more time one spends shaping one’s avatar, the more emotionally invested in it one can become. I was reminded of this when I read the less than flattering description of Sigmund: I was taken aback by the fact that the description actually had an emotional impact. Namely, ouch!
And when I noticed the ouch, I noticed that there was a stronger cathexis than I had bargained for. So when you are given the opportunity to meet one of your patient’s avatars, tread carefully. You don’t know how emotionally invested they are in their avatar. They may not know how emotionally invested they are in it. I know that we will have a rewarding supervision session next time, and I know that my supervisor will “get it.” But I will think twice before introducing her to my level 80 draeni mage from World of Warcraft. Sigmund has only been around for a few months, the mage has been around for 4 years! Another example of avatar cathexis is said mage. I recently wrote a two-part article for my local NASW paper on online gaming. My co-author asked me what licensure or work qualifications I wanted included in my byline. I wanted to include that I was an assistant faculty at Harvard Medical School and a level 80 draeni mage. She informed me that NASW wouldn’t consider the mage qualification professional enough. Again, ouch! Do you know how many hours it took to level that guy? We’ve been through thick and thin, and I consider him as source of pride on par as my Harvard appointment. Looking at that from the “outside in” you may think that is bizarre. But in terms of avatar cathexis it makes perfect sense.
Lesson #2 Avatar’s are fraught with meaning, conscious and unconscious meaning.
Now that I look at Sigmund, I can clearly see what my supervisor was describing. I could make excuses, in truth I wanted his hair to be more dirty blonde like mine but couldn’t figure out how to do that. But the reality is, I hadn’t been entirely conscious of my wish to be a few pounds thinner. But there is my wish fulfillment, standing there waving at us. Luckily I can tolerate seeing it. Some of our patients may have a harder time. Some may want to have more powerful bodies, others may want bodies assigned a different gender, still others want to give their avatar a chance at childlike innocence they never had, as the latest issue of TILT describes in “Alice in VirtualLand.”
So when exploring your patient’s avatar, tread carefully. But definitely explore it, the avatar is a gift to the treatment. It is wish fulfillment, idealized self, object relation, projection and IFS part all rolled up in one! If you are a psychodynamically oriented psychotherapist, you’ll be amazed at what comes up for your patient when you start to express interest in getting to know their avatars. And if you express disinterest, you have made a great empathic failure, and like all such empathic failures, you need to correct it ASAP.
In Second Life, there is a lot of joking about the bumping into things that first happens “inworld” when a user starts to try to move her or his avatar around. I see this as also a metaphor for integrating avatar therapy into your treatment repertoire. I have no intention of beginning to start having sessions with patients virtually in SL any time soon. But I can see that a day may be coming when that will be part of meeting them where they are at. I don’t want to be bumping around into walls or ego defenses, so I am practicing a little now, on my own time. Many of the people I supervise around technology want to jump right in, and I applaud their enthusiasm. I also caution them that we didn’t start meeting with patients before we had had at least some education in how to practice therapy, and that the same applies for learning to navigate Web 2.0.
What technology are you willing to play with and learn about before you are asked to by a patient? Where will you go this week?