This post is dedicated to my supervisee, Alex Kamin, who inspired me to make the connections. I learn so much from my supervisees!
Last night I spent a great deal of time mining for diamonds. They are fairly rare, and can only be mined if you have an iron pickaxe (or a diamond one). This meant that I needed to mine iron ore first with a stone pickaxe, but I should start at the beginning.
Minecraft is a game which now rivals WoW in popularity. It has been around in beta for a while, but now has been released to the general public. The game takes place in what is known as a sandbox world. What that means is that the game world can be effected permanently by the player. Dig a hole and it stays dug, chop a tree down and it stays chopped, plant new ones and in time they grow. As opposed to having a beginning, middle and end, Minecraft can be played for as long as you like. You can play it in single-player mode or log on to a minecraft server and participate in a multiplayer world.
Starting with nothing but her or his bare hands, your character takes materials from the environment and fashions tools, houses, works of art out of these raw materials. That is the crafting part. Once you have fashioned the most basic pickaxe, out of wood, you start to do the mining part. Which brings me back to diamonds.
Diamonds are very rare blocks in Minecraft, and are mostly found at the bottom layer of the world. You have to tunnel through loads of dirt blocks, stone blocks, and gravel blocks. Sometimes you tunnel straight into lava and get burned up. Sometimes the ground beneath you turns out to be a giant chasm and you plummet. Sometimes there is water that floods your tunnel, or monsters if you are looking in one of the world’s many caves.
A lot of time is spent underground, but a big part of the game is to bring the materials back up to the surface. There you make your crafting table, house, and forge. Days and nights pass. At night the monsters from the caves come out and roam the surface, and you’d better be in your house with the doors shut!
This is a very brief synopsis of an amazing virtual world that is already being used in classrooms and by families to provide cooperative and fun learning. You can find one such example, The Massively Minecraft Network, here.
One group who could benefit from understanding and playing Minecraft is psychodynamic psychotherapists, especially psychoanalytically-oriented ones.
For decades, psychology textbooks have used the iceberg to explain Freud’s early topographical model of the mind. It’s the one I grew up as a therapist with, and you probably did too. One version is this one:
The topographical model introduces the concepts of the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious. Freud was ultimately dissatisfied with this model, and moved on to his structural theoretical model of Id, Ego and Superego. I wonder if he would have done so if he’d been able to play Minecraft.
Two of the deficits of the topographical model as pictured by an iceberg are its static nature and its failure to locate where and how psychotherapy works. The second deficit derives from the first. Psychodynamic therapy is as the name suggests, a moving process. Now imagine playing the game I described above, and you have a dynamic model. There is the conscious surface that changes over time, is constantly changing and growing, where things are visible. There are the caverns and depths which are the unconscious. And there is the preconscious twilight and night, when the monsters and creatures from the unconscious slip up to the surface and terrify us.
In terms of describing psychodynamic therapy, Minecraft makes that easy too. I have often had a difficult time explaining to a patient what the unconscious is and why I think it is important. But any gamer who has played Minecraft will understand the process of therapy and their work in it in the metaphors of mining. During the week, our patients roam the surface of their psychosocial world. Then one, two, or three times a week, they come into therapy and begin tunneling. Week after week they mine dirt, stone, and occasionally strike a vein of insight. Like iron ore, insight is a necessary but insufficient requirement for change. Without smelting and crafting, iron ore can never become a tool we can use. Likewise, without reflecting on our behaviors and changing them we can never improve our ego functions.
You can explain ego functioning via Minecraft as well, by discussing those above tools. Tools in Minecraft include shovels, pickaxes, hatchets, swords, wool shears and hoes. A hoe is excellent to use in gardening, whereas a sword will not function in the game that way. You can chop down a tree with a pickaxe but it takes longer and wears down the pickaxe more quickly than if you were to use a hatchet. Different ego functions do different things, and the ego defenses are only one subset of the ego functions. Only one of the tools is explicitly made to be a weapon.
And if you lead with your ego defenses all the time you will be disappointed. Take sheep for example. If you kill a sheep with a sword you get one block of wool. But if you shear it with the iron shears you get three wools, and the sheep lives to grow more wool. By the way, if you craft a hoe you can grow wheat, which allows you to domesticate and breed sheep for even more wool. Just so our ego functions, which provide a holistic and dynamic system that allows us to mediate the world and our wishes.
When you start mining you have a wooden pickaxe. You mine stone so you can get a stone pickaxe. You mine iron ore with the stone one. Only iron pickaxes can mine diamonds.
Psychotherapy takes time and effort, lots of time and effort, if you are aiming for more than symptom reduction. Patients begin with the raw tools they started out with, and build on each developmental gain. Often our patients will feel very raw and discouraged, state that they despair of ever getting better, whatever better means to them. When that happens we can remind them that therapy is minecraft. It takes delving and work back on the surface in the real world outside the office. It takes time and patience. Sometimes they will feel consumed by feelings as hot as lava, or flooded by memories like water in a mineshaft. Sometimes it will feel like they’ve lost everything they’ve been carrying and have to start over. But with each set of tools they acquire they’ll find it easier to make their way in the world.
And sometimes they will find diamonds.