Tetris Beats Nazis: Video Games & Worry

This week I have two stories about video games, one that causes worry and one that effects it.

The first, worrisome, one concerns white nationalism, video games and propaganda. For as long as we have had Nazis, Aryanism, or White Nationalism, we have had its propaganda. Art is one of the most powerful medium that propaganda gets disseminated: Paintings by Erler and Feuerbach; film by Leni Riefenstahl; and music curated by Axis Sally were all examples of how the art form was used to convey Nazism. It should surprise no one that 21st century art mediums such as video games have their own share of deplorables.

One example, which I won’t link to, from the early 21st century was “Ethnic Cleansing” which came out in 2002. Since then there have been games like “Muslim Massacre” and “Zog’s Nightmare.” The games primarily target, Jews, Blacks, and Latinos, and are often on or linked to Nazi sites. Meanwhile, young people may find themselves being solicited online, where low-to-no moderation servers and bulletin boards like Discord and 4Chan provide a safe place to foster white supremacy.

Today, NPR came out with a story worth your attention, on the rise of recruitment efforts by white hate groups in online gaming environments. Now please don’t blame Fortnite. Most video games, even the violent ones, do not blatantly pedal nazi propaganda. The few that do are pretty explicit about it. What we need to worry about is how disillusioned and disenfranchised young men are vulnerable to being recruited by domestic terror groups, and of course they will be doing recruitment where youth are, including video games. My recommendation? When hate crimes or white supremacy comes up in your family discussions please ask your kids if they ever here things online that sound like hate speech or stereotypes. Assure them that you are more interested in hearing about what they may be experiencing than pulling the plug on Call of Duty, and that this is just one thing that people need to keep an eye on in online communities.

If anything shows up in their chat, consider taking screenshots and sending it to Discord or the chat platform you are using to let them know about the hate speech or recruitment. Both things are violation of TOS, and if your child doesn’t send it and someone else does they be banned themselves. Above all, keep an eye on gameplay, the content and the chat happening while it is happening. You don’t have to be Big Brother all the time, but let family members know that occasionally the games and chat need to be without headphones so you get a sense of who their “friends” are, just like you would if the friends were visiting your home in body.

Now that I have you worried about something new, go play some Tetris. That’s right, a recent study published in Emotion, a psychology journal, found that Tetris helped distract people from worrying by helping them achieve flow experiences. I have discussed before how distraction gets a bad rap and is actually evolutionarily adaptive. Here is some more research to support that theory!

So, now that I’ve made you worry, go play a little Tetris. You can do that here. Then, tomorrow, go vote.

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Yeah? Tell That to Squirtle: The Fallacy of “Screen Time”

Recently, the American Heart Association release an “statement” decrying the dangers of screen time. The report, according to USA Today, said screen time can lead to sedentary behavior increasing the odds that kids can grow up obese. The statement says among other things,
Although the mechanisms linking screen time to obesity are not entirely clear, there are real concerns that screens influence eating behaviors, possibly because children ‘tune out’ and don’t notice when they are full when eating in front of a screen.. (USA News & World Today, August 8, 2018)
Most people won’t dive deeper than the article and it’s quote, which is problematic in itself. “Although the mechanisms linking screen time to obesity are not entirely clear,” is really a way of saying what “this is a correlative statement, which is very different than causality.” If you are unfamiliar with the vast difference between the two, this is a great video to explain it. Come back when you’re done.

The problem with these studies, once they get amplified, is that they fuel the ongoing panic we have with emerging technologies. Once again, here’s my reminder list:

1. Doing any activity for more than several hours in a row is unhealthy, with the exceptions of sleep and meditation.

2. Not all “screens” are equal, have identical lighting and spectrums, and therefore identical impact on sleep.

3. Research shows that using your eyes at night stimulates the areas of your brain that arouse you. So reading, looking at your aquarium, crosswords, and even knitting will also hinder the onset of sleep if you use your vision.

4. Whether in a scientific journal or Trump’s “400 lb guy in a basement,” can we please stop fat-shaming people? Not every heavy body type is the same, nor is obesity a moral issue. Why not focus on teaching your children to be kind, critically thinking and funny humans than focusing on their bodies so much?

In fact, I can make a very different correlation, based on my experience with PokemonGo. This summer I increased my gameplay of this screen-based smartphone app quite a bit. To date I have walked over 150 miles catching Pokemon. I also have lost 5 lbs. My experience would predispose me to conclude that increasing this screen time has actually decreased the sedentary nature of my lifestyle, and lowered my weight. Of course, the fact that I spend half of my time in a rural community with friends who like to hike in the summer doesn’t hurt either, but that’s correlation for you.

While I’m at it, since folks are so concerned with the public health of our children here are some pro-active suggestions based on other possible correlations:

  • Stop fat-shaming kids so they seek escaping reality so much.
  • Fund schools better and test them less so things like recess are longer than 15 minutes.
  • Institute better gun control so children and their families aren’t afraid to go outside and get shot.
  • Decrease stigma of trans youth so they can safely explore gender in ways other than just an avatar of a different gender.
  • Make playgrounds and athletic teams universally accessible so that kids can play and engage regardless of physical differences.

You want to connect some dots, there, I got you started. Now stop going for the low hanging fruit and blame something other than Nintendo.

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Can’t We All Just Game Along?

I had a powerful reminder about the prosocial nature of video games this week, and it was nowhere near a console screen. I was on my way home and ran into a Dunkin’ Donuts, in a town I’d never been to before and was unfamiliar with. I ended up waiting in a rather lengthy line and was a bit grumpy. I happened to be wearing a T-Shirt which said this:

I hadn’t worn it for ages, and had forgotten in fact I was wearing it until the cashier called out to me, “I love your shirt.” Cue the endorphins.

“Thank you,” I said, and smiled (which thanks to state bound learning probably cued my body to produce even more endorphins.)  Waiting in the line seemed much more pleasant by this point. I ordered my coffee and sandwich and while waiting for them received another compliment from a customer walking by.

The third person to compliment me was a man in his 40s, scruffy and in jeans and t-shirt. “I love that game,” he said. “I haven’t played it in a while though.”

By now I was in a mood that allowed me to initiate conversations, so I asked “What are you playing nowadays.”

He proceeded to tell me that his 14 year-old daughter had gotten him into Fortnite. She had enjoyed it initially for the crafting, he said, because she really enjoyed Minecraft; but now that they were playing together she was enjoying the combat as well. His face lit up as he recounted how much fun they were having together. I told him about a study that had been done by Brigham Young that indicated increased levels of protective factors against depression. He smiled at that, and we both went on our way.

We spend so much time debating the neurological impact of playing video games that we often lose sight of another dimension; that of talking about playing video games. Talking about arts and culture is a powerful social adhesive. It identifies commonalities, allows for compliments and increased levels of engagement with others, allows us to recall exciting moments and share them. All of these activities in turn facilitate attachment, and increase a sense of well-being on the neurological level. That was the best line I’ve waited in a ages!

We need to find a way to get that message to Salty Sally the Social Worker and Morose Martin the Mental Health Counselor, whose eyes grow dull at the mention of gaming when their patients bring it up. “How much time are you playing Candy Crush?” they say, in uninviting tones, and eye such T-shirts as a clear sign of video game addiction. The next patient, who comes in with a T-Shirt of Monet’s “Water Lilies,” will get a compliment on it and no such screening for an Impressionist Art Addiction. In fact, the WHO didn’t include Art Disorder this go round at all, unless you include the art form of the video game.

In this current political climate, where we are so polarized, I wonder how many bridges (Minecraft or other) might be built if we paused to ask strangers in line if they play any games? I imagine Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike play something.

If Teams Valor, Instinct, and Mystic can all get along together raiding in Pokemon Go, perhaps we can too..

 

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What Disruption Is, and Isn’t

As I sat down to start the new year, I was thinking about an interesting Vanity Fair article I’d just read by Emily Chang, detailing the sexually predatory parties of Silicon Valley. In it, she describes a group of tech industry “hotshots [who]… proudly about how they’re overturning traditions and paradigms in their private lives, just as they do in the technology world they rule.”

I juxtapose this with conversations I’ve had recently with Trump supporters, one of whom said to me, “Yes, I know he’s a sociopath, he’s a fool, but he has tapped into the spirit of our time for many of us.” I try assiduously to avoid betting political on these posts, but the two quotes I just shared crystallized for me something that has been concerning me for sometime; namely, what “disruption” is and what it isn’t.

As a therapist and social worker who focuses on the impact of emerging technologies on our human condition, I am extremely interested in the concept of disruption. I do think we are seeing the disruption of our economies by Bitcoin, our news media by Twitter, and our politics by Facebook. I do think technological advances are disrupting the Post-Industrial concept of work, and Khan Academy and gamification are disrupting the relevance and primacy of traditional education. And from the Arab Spring to live streaming police brutality and organizing activists by the thousands by using a hashtag, I think social media has begun to disrupt systems of power that have been in place for centuries. I do think these forms of disruption have some things in common: They are often unforeseen by most if not all of us; and they call to society for a response.

There is nothing unforeseen to me about what is detailed in the Vanity Fair article, except the idea that the participants in her “Brotopia” are disrupting anything. There is nothing disruptive, nothing innovative about the use of gender inequality for power plays and gratification. And although we may feel called to respond to the article itself, that is what is disruptive. (In fact Vanity Fair, has been disrupting in an amazing way recently.) Nor is the current administration unforeseen, backlashes never are, really.

In my workshops I talk about how technology always amplifies things. Whether it be hate (books like Mein Kampf), information (Google,) misinformation (Russian bots,) attachment (Skype,) connection (pencils to write letters, LinkedIn,) reach (telegraph) or impact (hammers,) technology always amplifies. There is a big difference between disrupting existing systems of oppression and amplifying existing ones.

I am deeply concerned that people have begun using the concept of disruption to cover up or justify the actual attempts to amplify hatred. It is hard to notice what we are NOT seeing. We are not seeing parties of Silicon Valley women preying on aspiring young men, or in fact non-gender binary elites preying on cis gender people. When people talk about making America great again, that is not the language of disruption. The use of social media to “cyberbully” is not disruptive either, but an amplification of bullying that research has shown is often present in the physical environment of victim and perpetrator.

Technology often disrupts with no regard to the humans using it, because a hammer doesn’t tell you whether you “ought” to use it. But technology itself does not have an agenda. Technology does, however, as Martin Heidegger said, reveal us. Technology uncovers who we are, and sometimes that is not pleasant. Other times technology reveals human phenomenon like attachment.

As we enter a new year, I invite all of you to think carefully about what disruption is and is not. What and how are we using technologies? Are people claiming to be “disrupters” actually innovating and changing existing systems; or are they in fact a backlash from the existing systems against innovation and change? Does it feel surprising or unforeseen, or does it feel tedious? Do you feel called to respond or avoid? And as 2018 begins I’ll ask you what I often ask my audience: What do you want to amplify?

 

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Mindfulness, Minecraft & The I Ching

Video Games can be a form of mindfulness meditation, both playing and watching them. The Grokcraft Staff take you on a meditative creative session as we begin to build our I Ching Sculpture Park.  Watch, listen, and enjoy..

 

For more info on joining the Grokcraft project, go to http://grokcraft.com .  We are launching Grokcraft with an introductory subscription of $9.99 a month, & subscribers who join now will be locked in at that rate for as long as they are subscribed.  If any of this appeals to you, please check out our new site at http://grokcraft.com & please spread the word to anyone you think might find this resource useful!

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A New Startup Focusing on Minecraft & Social Emotional Learning

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Happy New Year, Gentle Reader!

I wanted to let you know about a new startup project that launches this month that you may find of interest called Grokcraft.

Grokcraft is a Minecraft server, learning lab, & community where parents, kids & professionals engage in playful collaborative social-emotional learning (SEL.) All our members are vetted & for youth require parent permission to participate.  Our counselors are available to mentor youth in SEL.  Our youth group, Grok Corps, will be open to those who want to be trained in conflict resolution & online moderation.  Our vision is that kids will not avoid conflicts as much as learn to resolve them when they arise.  We believe that in free play, children & adults can learn mindfulness, empathy & other social skills in a playful environment.  You can read more about this in our Manifesto.  With both adult and youth groups approaching with complementary educational needs & abilities in SEL & tech skills, there are constant opportunities for collaboration embedded in (most importantly!) fun.

Grokcraft is an educational rather than therapeutic milieu.  Based on the educateur model, professionals are encouraged to refer clients who would benefit from play-based social emotional learning.  Some examples of people who might refer:

  • A psychotherapist who has a patient needing to improve mindfulness, relational skills or empathy training beyond the clinical hour
  • A speech & language therapist who wants to provide a student with more opportunities for social pragmatic skills acquisition
  • A special educator who with students who need more opportunities to learn & practice SEL
  • A parent or professional who wants a child in their care to have a Minecraft community that is safe & supportive & vets each member personally

At the same time, Grokcraft provides a high-touch learning environment for adult educators & clinicians to learn how to use Minecraft in their work.  Monthly seminars for educators, in-game coaching & instruction are available to give professionals a fun way to learn & practice 21st-century game play & add it to their professional repertoire.  Some examples of professionals who may benefit:

  • A psychotherapist who wants clinical training in online play therapy techniques from experts
  • A speech & language therapist who wants a place to provide social pragmatics groups
  • A special educator who wants a secure place to have virtual field trips/project-based learning
  • A parent who wants parent guidance around digital literacy & SEL
  •  All of the above who want a peer community where they can exchange ideas & develop community that is not technophobic

We are launching Grokcraft with an introductory subscription of $9.99 a month, & subscribers who join now will be locked in at that rate for as long as they are subscribed.  If any of this appeals to you, please check out our new site at http://grokcraft.com & please spread the word to anyone you think might find this resource useful!

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Heroes

 

Extra Life Boo & Wow

This post is more personal than some, but then at some time in many of our lives cancer gets personal.  As many of you know, I have a companion and co-therapist named Boo.  For the past 12 years Miss Boo has worked with me to help in therapy.  We have worked with hundreds of children, adolescents and adults in settings ranging from special needs classrooms, alternative schools and outpatient settings.  And for the past decade we have been working together in my private practice.

This past Spring Boo developed a form of cancer known as osteosarcoma, which is a form of cancer where the tumor grows in the bone.  In her case, Boo began limping and we discovered that she had it in her front right leg.  What followed was a series of scary tests and decisions.  The recommended treatment for this in dogs is amputation of the limb and a course of chemo.  I was worried about this on so many levels:  I didn’t want to lose my friend, I didn’t want her to be in pain, and how was I doing to explain this to my patients?  You can’t just have a dog show up one week with one less leg and be all blank screen about it.  Some people suggested I retire her, but so many people come to me with ruptures in attachment, people who just walked out on them or were taken from them, that that didn’t make sense either.  Nope, we were going to do this honestly and mindfully.  If Boo could show up for such a challenging treatment, I could show up for her and we could show up for our patients.

Over the next few weeks I let people know what was going on if they wanted to know, to the extent they wanted to know.  While she was recovering from surgery I let people know that as well.  And when Boo came back to work, well that was a powerful week.  Cancer changes your body, but the self persists.  Boo had a visible change, there was a scar.  Some people approached petting her, some didn’t.  Boo accepted all of them.  Some people were reluctant to talk at first, imagining their problems were nothing compared to cancer or losing a leg, but we explored and put those concerns in perspective.  We all had work to do, and we did it.

Time passed, and chemo ended.  This is the result:

Each year, I take part in Extra Life, a worldwide celebration of the social impact of gamers of all kinds from video games to board games and tabletop RPG’s! Since 2010, Extra Life has raised more than $14 million to help children’s hospitals provide critical treatments and healthcare services, pediatric medical equipment, research and charitible care.  Your donation is tax-deductible and ALL PROCEEDS go to help kids nationwide and locally at my awesome colleagues at Boston Children’s Hospital.

This year, on November 7th, I’ll be playing World of Warcraft with a special avatar in honor of Boo.  (Of course I’ll be taking breaks every 45 minutes to keep my health ans stamina in good shape.)  If you want to join our team, Miss Boo’s Battalion, you can do that too!*  You don’t have to play WoW, you can play Minecraft, Dark Souls, Candy Crush, my colleague Jane McGonigal’s Superbetter, Zombies Run!, anything.  You can play Tabletop games like D&D or Pathfinder.  You don’t have to go 24 hours straight, any amount of time, anything you raise, helps.  Sharing the post helps too–you never know who might decide to donate or get their game on.

Miss Boo is my hero, and if you are living with cancer in your life you are my hero too.  Whether you are battling it yourself, defeating it, thriving after it, supporting someone who is, celebrating a win or grieving a loss, you are a hero.  On Saturday, November 7th, why not be a hero too?

*Past and present patients are asked to refrain to protect their privacy, but can always get involved with Extra Life on their own here.

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Better Living Through Minecraft

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Last month I had the opportunity to talk at SXSW 2015 about how the video game Minecraft has a lot to teach us about mindfulness.  Video games often get a bad rap with mental health folks, but I try to change that thinking by pointing out that playing video games can actually be a form of concentration meditation, albeit one that does not jibe with many people’s traditional concepts of such (focus on your breathing, focus on the candle, focus on..erm, Mario?)  If you want to hear more, the Audio is here:

https://soundcloud.com/michael-langlois-6/better-living-through-minecraft-audio-version

If you want to see the visuals from the Prezi, feel free to do so here:

If you enjoy it, please feel free to share, and if you want me to come talk to you and your colleagues drop me a note.

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The Internet & Real Relationships

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Today I was slicing some lemons for shish kabobs and so not surprisingly I began to think about social media, attachment and what constitutes an authentic relationship.

Authenticity was a key term when I was becoming a therapist in the mid nineties, and society in general.  Today, most people I have spoken to in the mental health profession would say our happiness in part depends on having authentic relationships with others.  Setting aside for a moment that we often talk about “authenticity” as if there is one monolithic thing that “everyone knows” it is, this belief in the connection between authentic relationships and happiness often gives psychotherapists, social workers and educators their moral imperative to discourage use of technology.  That’s where the lemons come in.

Ten years ago, I met my friend Jackie Dotson on the bulletin boards of Psychology Today.  These bulletin boards were designed for clinicians to have an online forum where they could discuss a range of issues, make referrals, and share ideas.  They were also a place where early-adopting clinicians stumbled and experimented, behaved badly, gossiped and misspoke, as we tried to make sense of emerging technologies.  I remember heated online conversations about whether the forums were private and “safe,” where people were startled to consider that anyone could cut and paste your confidential posts anywhere on the web.  People were emboldened or perhaps I should say “emoboldened” by the relative anonymity on the forum to say things that could be breathtaking in both their vulnerability and/or sadism.  It was the Wild West of mental health on the web.

My interactions with Jackie were few and far between when she and I were both active there.  It wasn’t until I moved on from the forums to spending more time on Facebook that I think we really began socializing more.  Perhaps it was because FB allowed for a flow of text and images, more seamless interaction, and chat.  Whatever the reason, over the past few years my life has intersected with Jackie more and more.  We have several mutual acquaintances from the PT forums, and a mutual friend with whom I went to college with.  I’m glad I friended her.

From 3,000 miles away, Jackie has crept into my online and emotional life with the secret code of affinity that could only be shared via social media.  We share a love of bone marrow as evidenced by our food pics, and she has forced me to rethink my stance in social media workshops I do where I used to announce to my audience, “Nobody wants to see your food.”  Our dark wit and banter is present more days than not in my FB feeds, I’ve even taken more of an interest in my local sports teams so I can insult hers.  In return she pretends to be a bigot on LGBT issues to bait me.  Although I’ve never told her explicitly, she has reassured me when I worried about how my picture looks online, and comforted me when my city suffered a terrorist attack.

And then last year she started sending me lemons.  Real lemons.

Jackie lives in CA, and has at least one prolific lemon tree.  Last year she offered to mail a box of them to anyone of her friends on Facebook for the price of shipping.  I jumped at the chance.  They arrived within days and were enjoyed by my family immensely.  So immensely, that when Jackie began posting pictures of budding trees this year, I grew quite impatient for them.  They arrived two weeks ago, and for the past two Sundays I have used them for cooking.  As I write this, there are chicken kabobs marinating in lemon and thyme for tonight.

Jackie and I have never sat down together for a heart to heart or face to face conversation, but we carry our connection to each other throughout our day with our smartphones.  In the decade that we have been in each others’ orbits, I suspect we have each known deep sadnesses that we haven’t spoken of to each other.  Yet I am convinced that if I ever chose to reach out to her that way it would be okay and vice verse.  Not all intimacy needs to be acted on.

That said, for two Sundays, as I have chopped and squeezed fresh lemons, I have thought of Jackie and smiled.  I have imagined her and our conversations as I move through my kitchen, while my brain alters levels of different neurochemicals and changes my affective state in ways that are real and comforting to me.

The stubborn adherence to imagining that technological use inherently diminishes our authenticity has been eroding the mental health field’s relationship with the people we work with for decades now.  Friends and colleagues of mine in the tech industry are consistently amazed that I still need to educate and advocate with my peers about this.  Our profession continues to act as if relationship mediated by emerging technologies is one step removed from other relationships, less authentic because we use our bodies in different ways to achieve connection with each other.  I wonder if our dogs feel that we are less authentic because we have replaced smelling butts with eye contact and uttering sounds all the time?

I jest, in part because I doubt our companion animals feels as fearful of becoming irrelevant as many of my colleagues do.  I think this fear is only justified to the extent that we are dogmatic about what constitute authenticity for everyone.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said:

Love is the only force which can make things one without destroying them. … Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness.. the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

I do not think it is the role of the therapist to be the arbiter of truth in what makes intimacy or authentic relationships.  Our role is to help our patients explore their capacity and harness their energies for love in ways that may go beyond the imagination our own experience affords us.  It is not for us to give them fire as gods would, but to help them make themselves whole without destroying them.

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The Lava Expert

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“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”  –The Imitation Game

Shortly before I fell into the lava I began a conversation with an eleven year old girl, we’ll call her Sal.  This was a while back, on a Minecraft server I play on from time to time.  My name when I play Minecraft has the word “therapist” in it, and Sal had noticed this.

“Hey, are you really a therapist?” Sal asked via our server text chat.

“Yes I am.”  I typed back.  I had been mining obsidian and using a river to cool the lava so I could chip away at it with my diamond pickaxe.  In the time it took to type my reply, I managed to fall into the river and get washed into the lava.  I watched myself go up in flames, and with me most of my loot.  There is always a chance though, when one falls into lava this way, that some of one’s loot can be thrown clear.  So upon respawning I quickly made my way back to the scene of my demise as we continued our conversation.

“Oops, burned up,” Sal said, as the server had announced just that when I fell in the lava.  “Are you the kind of therapist that talks to kids about their problems?”

“Kids and adults both, yes.”

“My mother wants me to see a therapist,” Sal said.

“Why?” asked another one of the kids on the server.

“She says I have problems with friends,” Sal said.  By this point I had returned to the lava pool.  There was no loot that had survived.

“Sal,” I said.  “Everyone needs help with their problems from time to time.  That’s why there are 7 billion people on the planet, to help each other out.”

For some reason that made quite an impact with the other players.  “Wow, you must be an expert!!” one typed.  I’m not sure how he’d come to that conclusion.

“I’m certainly not an expert on lava,” I replied, and fortunately the conversation went back to the business of mining after some sympathetic emoticons.

I have no problem talking with kids about therapy, or being a psychotherapist.  If I did, I certainly wouldn’t have the word in my userid.  And it wasn’t even that I was “off duty.”  I’ve had many conversations in chats over the years and heard a range of problems.  In part I was a little protective of Sal’s right to privacy, although experience has again shown me that kids are often less hung up on therapy than adults, and in many ways are often more trusting of psychotherapy than adults are.  Mostly the reason I wanted us all to get back to playing was that I had caught myself sounding “educational.”

*  *  *  *  *

In play if there is any such thing as an expert it is certainly not the therapist, or adults in general.  Virginia Axline, knew this.  In her book Play Therapy she writes, “Non-directive therapy is based upon the assumption that the individual has within himself…  the ability to solve his own problems satisfactorily.”  (Axline, 1947)  My trainees are often as surprised to find that I am friend to both psychodynamic and solution-focused theories as I am to find that they have been taught the two have irreconcilable differences.

As I see it, my job is often to be a unique experience in the lives of patients.  “It is a unique experience,” Axline writes, “for a child to find adult suggestions, mandates, rebukes, restraints, criticisms, disapprovals, support, intrusions gone.” (Axline, 1947)  And by the time people come to us as adolescents or adults, those suggestions, mandates, rebukes, restraints, criticisms, disapprovals, etc. have become internalized.  By adulthood, many of us feel as if we lack expertise in anything, except perhaps screwing our lives up.

Education has increasingly played a hand in this.  We do not teach so that our students learn to think independently and feel resourcefully.  Instead we teach them to think like someone else.  Critical thinking and exploration become supplanted by the sense that education has to give us something tangible in a materialistic sense:  A good grade; a profitable job; published ideas or maybe if we really drink the Koolaid admiration from other academics.

One thing that is so enjoyable about Minecraft for many is its’ open sandbox environment.  There is an endgame you can play if you want, but there are also myriad variations of play you can do instead.  Sal and millions of other children and adults can range freely through such open and creative spaces without “experts.”  Education certainly can happen there, but often in a lightly curated if not autodidactive way.  People have created versions of Westeros, Middle-Earth, Panem or their own creations.  There are PvP versions where conflict and combat, stealth and griefing hold sway; fantasy realms where people can role-play.  It is a topsy-turvy world where children can have the most wisdom, and we adult experts can trip and fall into lava.

*  *  *  *  *

In a world obsessed with measuring outcomes, psychotherapy can have a rough time of it.  If Sal ever goes to therapy, she will have to be labeled as ill somehow if her mother wants insurance to help pay for it.  Notes will have to be written, treatment plans planned, goals and objectives filed away so bean-counters can determine that Sal should get 14 beans-worth of help.  It’s hard for me to get too angry at the bean-counters though, over the past 25 years I’ve met a few of them and they don’t seem too happy either.

Education fares little better, with things like the Common Core which tells us what should be taught; standardized testing which masquerades as achievement; and trigger warnings which are supposed to warn students of upsetting content as if they somehow were entitled to get through the mind-altering experience of learning without ever being upset.

It takes bravery to stand up to this.  To let the individual chart their own course, make their own mistakes, draw on their own core.  For the therapist and educator it takes bravery to get out of the way, to radically reflect the developing self.  I do believe that each one of us needs help throughout our lives; but that help needs to be asked for lest we run the risk of telling others what to do and implying they aren’t up to the task of living their own lives.

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Many therapists, social workers, and teachers I have met chose to become members of those professions at least in part as an expression of admiration for their own therapists, social workers and teachers.  They had no interest in falling into the lava ever again, so they started focusing on helping other people out.  It’s a thankless job if you are going to go through it secretly hoping to be thanked.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had someone I work with refer to me as an “expert” unless they were being facetious about some blunder I’d just made.  And I’ve made many.  As an apotheosis, being a psychotherapist or academic is rather anticlimactic, not because the work is devoid of meaning or value, but rather because if we truly place such people on a divine pedestal it needs a steady stream of troubled people to hold it steady.

Perhaps an alternative for therapists, social workers, educators and our ilk is to think of ourselves as “lava experts.”  We have some acquaintance with falling into pits, being consumed by intense feelings, losing all our, erm, loot.  These are human experiences.  This is not a secret to anyone, and I doubt most people would put their trust in someone who knows nothing of failure, obsession, overwhelm or grief.

What’s more is we’ve fallen into lava, often the same pit again and again!  We know something of the repetition compulsion.  We have let our yearning for whatever we think we need lead us to risky or self-defeating behaviors.  We can talk to people about their problems, because we are people who have problems ourselves.  We’ve been burned.  Minecraft miners know mining deep is risky:  We know what we’re doing even up to that moment our bones ignite.

Rather than being an expert on a pedestal, accept that you will tumble into fire, again and again, looking outside of yourself for what is precious.  Straight A’s, that book you published, six or seven figures–There’s a little Gollum in all of us.  It’s what makes us forget mindfulness, build empires, win arguments or wars.  No one was ever oppressed by play, only the lack of imagination that comes from the absence of it.

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