Not too long ago, I was learning how to fire a sniper rifle in Call of Duty. It wasn’t going very well. I kept firing (which you do by holding down the right-hand trigger) and missing. Or I would use the scope, which you do by holding down the left-hand trigger; and then try to find my target so slowly that I’d get shot long before seeing it. To make thing more complicated, my patient Gordon** was trying to teach me the difference between “hardscoping” which meant to press and hold down the left trigger, and “quickscoping” which was more like a quick tap and release of the scope.
The key to success, I was told, was to locate the target, quickscope it for a second to take aim, and then fire. The source of my failure was that I’d see the target and not bother to scope at all, and just fire. At first I didn’t even know I was doing that. I thought the scope was going up, and it was, but it was going up a split second after I was firing and not before. After several fumbled attempts Gordon said, “you have to not fire and learn to push the scope first instead.” I suddenly realized that he was teaching me about impulse control.
Because many parents and therapists are reluctant to play video games, in particular first-person-shooters, they only tend to see them from outside the experience. What they learn from seeing that way is that FPS are full of violence, mayhem, blood and noise. Is it any wonder then that they grow concerned about aggression and the graphic nature of the game? It’s all that is really available to them unless there is a strong plot line and they stick around for that.
But as someone who has been playing video games for years I can tell you things are different from within the experience. And one of the most counterintuitive things I can tell you from my experience is this: First Person Shooters can help you learn impulse control. It takes a lot more impulse control to not fire at a target the second you see it. It takes a lot more impulse control to wait and scope. And because all of these microdecisions and actions take place within the player’s mind and the game experience, outside observers see violence and aggression alone and overlook the small acts of impulse control the player has to exert over and over again.
Any therapist who has worked with adolescents, people with ADHD, personality disorders and a host of other patient types understands the importance of learning impulse control. That act of mindfulness, that ability to create a moment’s space between the situation and the patient’s reaction to it is necessary to help people do everything from their homework to suicide prevention. In addition, there is always a body-based aspect to impulse control, however brief or small, and so to create that space is to forge a new and wider relationship between mind and body.
All of this was going on as we were playing Xbox. Over and over again, I was developing, practicing impulse control from behind that virtual sniper rifle. Again and again I was trying to recalibrate my bodily reflexes and sensations to a new mental model. Don’t fire. When my kill score began to rise, it wasn’t because my aim had gotten better, it was because my impulse control had.
Meanwhile, for the past two weeks I have been practicing making omeletes.
In particular, I have been learning how to make an omelette roulée of the kind Julia Childs makes below (you can skip to 3:30 if you want to go right to the pan.)
This type of omelette requires the ability to quickly (in 20-30 seconds) tilt and jerk the pan towards you multiple times, and then tilting the pan even more to flip it. Doing this over the highest heat the movement needs to be quick and reflexive or you end up tossing a scrambled eggy mess onto the burner. I can’t tell you how tense that moment is when the butter is ready and you know that once you pour in the egg mixture there is no going back. To jerk the pan sharply towards you at a tilt seems so counterintuitive, and this is an act of dexterity, meaning that your body is very involved.
In a way an omelette roulée requires impulse control just like Call of Duty in order to learn how to not push the pan but pull it toward you first. But just as importantly, making this omelette requires the ability to take risks. It can be scary to make a mess, what happens if the eggs fly into the gas flame?!
Let me tell you, because I now know what happens: You turn off the flame, wait a minute and wipe off the messy burner. And then you try again.
Adolescents, all people really, need to master both of these skills of impulse control and risk-taking. To do so means widening the space in your mind between situation and action, but not let that space become a gaping chasm impossible to cross. Learning impulse control also happens within experience, not in a special pocket universe somewhere apart from it. Learning risk-taking requires the same. And at their core they are bodily experiences, which may be what Freud meant when he said that the ego was first and foremost a body ego.
When I worked in special education settings, I was often called on to restrain children in crisis. Afterwards we would usually do a postvention: “What was happening?” “How could you do things differently next time?” We were looking at their experience from the outside, constructing a little pocket universe with words, as if we understood what had been going on in the experience, in the body and psyche of the child. I doubt these post-mortems taught impulse control.
I wonder what might have happened if we had risked throwing some eggs on the fire and encouraged the kids to play first person shooters or other video games. If my theory is right, then we would have been cooking.
**Not his real name. Name, age, gender and other identifying information have been altered to preserve confidentiality.
Mike is on vacation until September, which means that he has started talking in the third person at the end of blog posts. It also means that the next new post will be next month. He’ll repost an old fave or book excerpt to tide you over in the meantime.