Using Gaming & Gamification in Clinical Practice

What does “gamification” mean, and what is its relevance to mental health practice?  In this video of a conversation I had at University at Buffalo with Charles Syms, I take a stab at answering those questions.  This is just a start, and hopefully by the end of the video you can begin to see how applying principles of game design could be therapeutic for people dealing with issues ranging from trauma to executive functioning challenges to substance abuse and beyond.

 

 

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Gamer-Affirmative Practice: Today’s Play Therapy

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The importance of play is universal, and in many ways the nature of play is timeless.  That said, there is a lot to learn about video games as 21st-century play, especially if you are a play therapist.  Adding 21st-century forms of play to your repertoire can be daunting.  With so many naysayers in the mental health profession, avoidance of learning the new takes the form of contempt prior to investigation.  With video games being low-hanging fruit for political arguments ranging from gun control to teen bullying, many social workers, psychologists and counselors give in to the media hype and spend far more time demonizing or ignoring this form of play than they do understanding it.

Recently my colleagues at the University at Buffalo made it a point to take a gamer-affirmative stance and offer a beginning piece of continuing education on integrating video games as play therapy in the form of a podcast.  In it my friend, colleague, and yes, fellow video game player Anthony Guzman and I have a beginning conversation about just that.  Have a listen:

inSocialWork® Episode 144 – Michael Langlois: Gamer-Affirmative Practice: Today’s Play Therapy

 

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Innovation is Dangerous & Gaming Causes Asperger’s

GamerTherapist blog is on vacation and will return with new posts after Labor Day.  In the meantime, here is a reader favorite:

At its heart, diagnosis is about exerting control.  Clinicians want to get some sense of control in understanding a problem.  We link diagnosis to prognosis to control our expectations of how likely and how much we will see a change in the patient’s condition.  Insurance companies want to get a handle on how much to spend on who.  Schools want to control access to resources and organize their student body.  And with the current healthcare situation, the government is sure to use diagnosis as a major part of the criteria in determining who gets what kind of care.

Therapists and Educators do not like to think of ourselves as controlling people.  But we often inadvertently attempt to exert control over our patients and entire segments of the population, by defining something as a problem and then locating it squarely in the individual we are “helping.”

This week has been one of those weeks where I have heard from several different colleagues about workshops they are attending where the presenters are linking Asperger’s with Gaming Addiction:  Not in the sense of “Many people on the Autism Spectrum find success and motivation through the use of video games,” but rather in the sense of “excessive gaming is prevalent in the autistic spectrum community.”

This has always frustrated me, for several reasons, and I decided its time to elaborate on them again:

1. Correlation does not imply Causation.  Although this is basic statistics 101 stuff, therapists and educators continue to make this mistake over and over.  Lots of people with Asperger’s play video games, this is true.  This should not surprise us, because lots of people play video games!  97% of all adolescent boys and 94% of adolescent girls, according to the Pew Research Center.  But we love to make connections, and we love the idea that we are “in the know.”  I can’t tell you how many times when I worked in education and clinics I heard talk of people were “suspected” of having Asperger’s because they liked computers and did not make eye contact.  Really.  If a kiddo didn’t look at the teacher, and liked to spend time on the computer, a suggested diagnosis of Autism couldn’t be far behind.  We like to see patterns in life, even oversimplified ones.

2. Causation often DOES imply bias.  Have you ever stopped to wonder what causes “neurotypical” behavior?  Or what causes heterosexuality for that matter.  Probably not.  We usually try to look for the causation of things we are busily pathologizing in people.  We want everyone to fit within the realm of what the unspoken majority has determined as normal.  Our education system is still prone to be designed like a little factory.  We want to have our desks in rows, our seats assigned, and our tests standardized.  So if your sensory input is a little different, or your neurology atypical, you get “helped.”  Your behavior is labeled as inappropriate if it diverges, and you are taught that you do not have and need to learn social skills.

Educators, parents, therapists and partners of folks on the Austism Spectrum, please repeat this mantra 3 times:

It is not good social skills to tell someone they do not have good social skills.

By the same token, technology, and video games, are not bad or abnormal either.  Don’t you see that it is this consensual attitude that there is something “off” about kids with differences or gamers or geeks that silently telegraphs to school bullies that certain kids are targets?  Yet, when an adolescent has no friends and is bullied it is often considered understandable because they have “poor social skills and spend too much time on the computer.”  Of course, many of the same kids are successfully socializing online through these games, and are active members of guilds where the stuff they hear daily in school is not tolerated on guild chat.

Let’s do a little experiment:  How about I forbid you to go to your book discussion group, poker night, or psychoanalytic institute.  Instead, you need to spend all of your time with the people at work who annoy you, gossip about you and make your life miserable.  Sorry, but it is for your own good.  You need to learn to get along with them, because they are a part of your real life.  You can’t hide in rooms with other weirdos who like talking about things that never happened or happened a long time ago; or hide in rooms with other people that like to spend hours holding little colored pieces of cardboard, sort them, and exchange them with each other for money; or hide in rooms where people interpret dreams and talk about “the family romance.”

I’m sure you get my point.  We have forgotten how little personal power human beings have before they turn 18.  So even if playing video games was a sign of Asperger’s, we need to reconsider our idea that there is something “wrong” with neuro-atypical behaviors.  There isn’t.

A lot of the work I have done with adults on the spectrum has been to help them debrief the trauma of the first 20 years of their lives.  I’ve had several conversations where we’ve realized that they are afraid to ask me or anyone questions about how to do things, because they worried that asking the question was inappropriate or showed poor social skills.  Is that really what you want our children to learn in school and in treatment?  That it is not ok to ask questions?  What a recipe for a life of loneliness and fear!

If you aren’t convinced, please check out this list of famous people with ASD.  They include Actors (Daryl Hannah,) bankers, composers, rock stars, a royal prince and the creator of Pokemon.  Not really surprising when you think about innovation.

3.  Innovation is Dangerous.  Innovation, like art, requires you to want things to be different than the way they are.  Those are the kids that don’t like to do math “that way,” or are seen as weird.  These are the “oversensitive” ones.  These are the ones who spend a lot of time in fantasy, imagining a world that is different.  These are the people I want to have over for hot chocolate and talk to, frankly.

But in our world, innovation is dangerous.  There are unspoken social contracts that support normalcy and bureaucracy (have you been following Congress lately?)  And there are hundreds of our colleagues who are “experts” in trying to get us all marching in lockstep, even if that means killing a different drummer.  When people try to innovate, they are mocked, fired from their jobs, beaten up, put down and ignored.  It takes a great deal of courage to innovate.  The status quo is not neutral, it actively tries to grind those who are different down.

People who are fans of technology, nowadays that means internet and computing, have always been suspect, and treated as different or out of touch with reality.  They spend “too much time on the computer,” we think, until they discover the next cool thing, or crack a code that will help fight HIV.  Only after society sees the value of what they did do they get any slack.

Stop counting the hours your kid is playing video games and start asking them what they are playing and what they like about it.  Stop focusing exclusively on the “poor social skills” of the vulnerable kids and start paying attention to bullies, whether they be playground bullies or experts.  Stop worrying about what causes autism and start worrying about how to make the world a better place for people with it.

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Dopey About Dopamine: Video Games, Drugs, & Addiction

GamerTherapist blog is on vacation and will return with new posts after Labor Day.  In the meantime, here is a reader favorite:

Last week I was speaking to a colleague whose partner is a gamer. She was telling me about their visit to his mother. During the visit my colleague was speaking to his mother about how much he still enjoys playing video games. His mother expressed how concerned she had been about his playing when he was young. “It could have been worse though,” she’d said, “at least he wasn’t into drugs.”

This comparison is reminiscent of the homophobic one where the tolerant person says, “I don’t mind if you’re gay, as long as you don’t come home with a goat.” The “distinction” made actually implies that the two things are comparable. But in fact they are not.

Our culture uses the word addiction pretty frequently and casually. And gamers and opponents of gaming alike use it in reference to playing video games. Frequently we hear the comments “gaming is like a drug,” or “video games are addictive,” or “I’m addicted to Halo 3.” What muddies the waters further are the dozens of articles that talk about “proof” that video games are addictive, that they cause real changes in the brain, changes just like drugs.

We live in a positivistic age, where something is “real” if it can be shown to be biological in nature. I could argue that biology is only one way of looking at the world, but for a change I thought I’d encourage us to take a look at the idea of gaming as addictive from the point of view of biology, specifically dopamine levels in the brain.

Dopamine levels are associated with the reward center of the brain, and the heightened sense of pleasure that characterizes rewarding experiences. When we experience something pleasurable, our dopamine levels increase. It’s nature’s way of reinforcing behaviors that are often necessary for survival.

One of the frequent pieces of evidence to support video game addiction is studies like this one by Koepp et al, which was done in 1998. It monitored changes in dopamine levels from subjects who were playing a video game. The study noted that dopamine levels increased during game play “at least twofold.” Since then literature reviews and articles with an anti-gaming bias frequently and rightly state that video games can cause dopamine levels to “double” or significantly increase.

They’re absolutely right, video games have been shown to increase dopamine levels by 100% (aka doubling.)

Just like studies have shown that food and sex increase dopamine levels:

This graph shows that eating food often doubles the level of dopamine in the brain, ranging from a spike of 50% to a spike of 100% an hour after eating. Sex is even more noticeable, in that it increases dopamine levels in the brain by 200%.

So, yes, playing video games increases dopamine levels in your brain, just like eating and having sex do, albeit less. But just because something changes your dopamine levels doesn’t mean it is addictive. In fact, we’d be in big trouble if we never had increases in our dopamine levels. Why eat or reproduce when it is just as pleasurable to lie on the rock and bask in the sun?

But here’s the other thing that gets lost in the spin. Not all dopamine level increases are created equal. Let’s take a look at another chart, from the Meth Inside-Out Public Media Service Kit:

This is a case where a picture is worth a thousand words. When we read that something “doubles” it certainly sounds intense, or severe. But an increase of 100% seems rather paltry compare to 350% (cocaine) or 1200% (Meth)!

One last chart for you, again from the NIDA. This one shows the dopamine increases (the pink line) in amphetamine, cocaine, nicotine and morphine:

Of all of these, the drug morphine comes closest to a relatively “low” increase of 100%.

So my point here is twofold:

1. Lots of things, not all or most of them drugs, increase the levels of dopamine.

2. Drugs have a much more marked, sudden, and intense increase in dopamine level increase compared to video games.

Does this mean that people can’t have problem usage of video games? No. But what it does mean, in my opinion, is that we have to stop treating behaviors as if they were controlled substances. Playing video games, watching television, eating, and having sex are behaviors that can all be problematic in certain times and certain contexts. But they are not the same as ingesting drugs, they don’t cause the same level of chemical change in the brain.

And we need to acknowledge that there is a confusion of tongues where the word addiction is involved. Using it in a clinical sense is different than in a lay sense– saying “I’m hooked on meth” is not the same as saying “I’m hooked on phonics.” Therapists and gamers alike need to be more mindful of what they are saying and meaning when they say they are addicted to video games. Do they mean it is a psychological illness, a medical phenomenon? Do they mean they can’t get enough of them, or that they like them a whole lot? Do they mean it is a problem in their life, or are they parroting what someone else has said to them?

I don’t want to oversimplify addiction by reducing it to dopamine level increase. Even in the above discussion I have oversimplified these pieces of “data.” There are several factors, such as time after drug, that we didn’t compare. And there are several other changes in brain chemistry that contribute to rewarding behavior and where it goes awry. I just want to show an example of how research can be cited and misused to distort things. The study we started out with simply found that we can measure changes in brain chemistry which occur when we do certain activities. It was not designed or intended to be proof that video games are dangerous or addictive.

Saying that something changes your brain chemistry shouldn’t become the new morality. Lots of things change your brain chemistry. But as Loretta Laroche says, “a wet towel on the bed is not the same as a mugging.” We need to keep it complicated and not throw words around like “addiction” and “drug” because we want people to take us seriously or agree with us. That isn’t scientific inquiry. That’s hysteria.

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Breaking Eggs and Holding Your Fire: Some Thoughts on Skills Acquisition

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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.

 

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“Can I Kill You Again Today?”: The Psychoanalysis of Player Modes

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In 1947, Virginia Axline published the first edition of what  was to become a seminal work in the field it was named for, Play Therapy.  In her book she championed the concept of non-directive play, the form of play therapy where the therapist takes in some ways a very Rogerian approach of reflecting rather than directing the play either overtly or subtly.

This is easier said than done, as I learned when I started using it as an intern.  I recall watching a youngster play and describe a family in a horrible car accident.  My first comment was, “are they all right?” covertly signalling to the child that I was anxious in the presence of such violence and the possibility of death.  The child reassured me that the family was okay, and I am convinced that I had essentially ruined that session’s treatment.  Fortunately I was lucky to have an amazing supervisor, Linda Storey (great name for a therapist too!) who helped me to learn how to truly be non-directive.  Over the next year and since I have greeted tornadoes, murder, floods, monster attacks, plane crashes, burning buildings and other disasters with “what happens next?”

Non-directive play therapy is still at it’s heart a two-part invention between the therapist and the patient.  However, unlike some other forms of treatment, it requires the therapist to be able to tolerate a lot of violence and anxiety.  Trying to direct children away from their aggressive fantasies and desires is often rooted in the therapist’s own anxiety about them.  Let’s face it, for many of us death and destruction are scary things.  It isn’t just a rookie mistake to ask the child to make the story turn out “okay,” and yet I think it has never been more urgent for therapists to be able to tolerate violent fantasy and encourage it to unfold in the play.

21st Century Play

Virginia Axline never had to contend with Call of Duty Special Ops, Modern Warfare or Battlefield 3.  What was different about 20th Century play therapy was that the games in the consulting room usually resembled the ones from the child’s everyday life at home or school.  The therapists therefore knew how to play them, and didn’t necessarily need to learn them as they went.  But now we are in the 21st century, where the therapy office often has games from our childhoods rather than those of our patients, and they are very different.

If you are a therapist and never intend to learn to play video games and play them with your patients, you should probably stop reading here; the post won’t be useful to you and I’ll probably annoy you.  But if you don’t plan on using video games with your young patients I hope you’ll consider stopping doing play therapy with children as well.  Certainly stop calling yourself a non-directive play therapist, because you’ve already directed the child’s play away from their familiar games and away from this century.  I actually hope, though, that you will lean into the places that scare you and try to meet your patients where they are at in their play, and for 97% of boys and 94% of girls that means video games.

Video games like Call of Duty and Minecraft are both very useful in both diagnosis and treatment of patients, as I hope to demonstrate by focusing just on one aspect here, that of player modes.  Most video games have a range of player modes, and what the patient chooses can say a lot about their attachment styles, selfobject needs, and object relations.

Solo Play is OK

Like other forms of play, sometimes patients want to play alone, and have me bear witness to their exploits.  They may do so out of initial mistrust, or a yearning for mirroring.  Solo play is looked down on by some therapists, who often think kids using “the computer” are austitic and/or “stuck” in parallel play.  I’d refer you to Winnicott, who taught us that it is a developmental achievement to be alone in the presence of another.  (I’d also refer you to my colleague and therapist Brian R. King who has a lot to say about a strengths-based approach to people on the autistic spectrum, on which he includes himself.)

The Many Reasons to Collaborate.

Some patients want to play with me on the same team in first person shooter games.  The reasons for this can vary.  Some patients want to protect me from their aggression because they are afraid I’ll be scared of it like parents, teachers and other adults may have been.  Other patients want to be on the same team because they want  to have a merger with an idealized parent imago to feel more powerful and able to take on the game.  Still other patients, seen in their daily lives as oppositional or violent, want to play on the same team so they can revive me and have me experience them as nurturing and a force for good in the world.

Some patients  want to have their competition framed by overall collaboration, meaning that they want to get the most or final “kills” but remain on the same team.  Some patients secretly yearn to play on a different team, and may need to “accidentally” change the settings to put us on opposing teams and passively want the game to continue.

Let’s Bring On A World of Hurt.

On the other hand, there are a lot of reasons patients want to compete.  They may want to see if I can stand their aggression and/or desire to win without being annihilated.  They may want to express their sadism by tormenting me for my lack of skill, or alternately project their yearnings for recognition by praising me when I kill them.  They may want to see how I manage my frustration when playing, and interpret that frustration as investment in the game and therefore my relationship with them.  They may be watching very carefully to see how I act when I win or lose.  Do I gloat when I win?  Do I make excuses when I lose?  How might these behaviors be understood by children and adolescents who often feel like they are chronically losing and behind their peers in the game of education?

More questions arise:  Does the patient ask me what mode I want to play or simply decide on one?  Do they modulate their anxiety by playing a combat mode but expressing the desire to stay away from the zombie mode?  By allowing them to do that am I helping them to learn that sometimes life is about choosing the lesser of two anxieties rather than avoiding anxiety altogether?

Multiplayer and Uninvited Guests

In terms of settings, there is some direction on my part, which is part of maintaining the therapeutic frame.  I make it a requirement that we play either locally or in a private game.  And of course this sometimes go wrong, with a random player joining us.

What to do then?  What if we are on an extremely high level and just terminating the game will do more harm than good?  In that case I make sure we are on mute and the our conversation can’t be heard by the added player, and then things get even more interesting in the therapeutic conversation:  Does the patient have any feelings about the new player’s arrival?  What do they imagine the usertag “NavySeal69” means anyway?  Do we help them when they are down or try to ignore them?  How do we feel if they are ignoring us?  Do we team up against them?

Minecraft and the Repetition Compulsion.

I could probably write a whole post or paper on this, but for know let’s talk about creative mode and griefing.  In Minecraft you and other players can build things alone or together.  Other players can also “grief” you, meaning cause you grief by destroying your structures and setting you back after a lot of hard work.   What does it mean when a patient griefs my building, apologizing and promising not to grief it if I rebuild, then griefs it over and over again?  What may be being reenacted here?  Are there adults in the patient’s life who tear her/him down again and again?  When does one give up on any hope for honesty or compassion from the other?  What sort of object are they inviting me to become to them; angry, patient, gullible, limit-setting, mistrustful?

I have used the term child or adolescent here, but exploring the gameplay of adults when they describe it to me is often useful as well.  I often encourage my adult students or gamer readers to do a little self-analysis on their play-style?  What does your preferred mode of moving through video games say about you?  What questions does it invite you to explore?

The goal here is not to give you an explicit case presentation or analysis of one hypothetical patient or game.  Rather, it is to provide you with a Whitman’s Sampler of practice and theory nuggets to give you a taste of the richness you are missing if you don’t play video games with your patients, especially if you are a psychodynamic therapist.  There is a lot that “happens next” if you engage with your patients in 21st century play that has themes you may find familiar:  How do I live in a world that can be hostile to me?  Why should I trust you to be any different?  Will my badness destroy or repulse you?  Will you hurt me if I am vulnerable?  These and dozens of other fascinating and relevant themes emerge in a way that never did for me when I forced kids to endure 45 minutes of the Talking, Feeling, Doing Game.  And what’s more you don’t have to remember to take the “What Do You Think About a Girl Who Sometimes Plays with or Rubs Her Vagina When She’s Alone?” card out of the deck.

I’m not THAT non-directive.  🙂

 

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4 Tips For Dealing With Video Game Violence For Parents

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Whenever there is an upsurge in moral panic around violence in the media, the focus becomes more polarizing than pragmatic.  Despite the overwhelming research (such as these articles) that shows weak if any links between video games and violence, media pundits whip up mental health providers and the parents they work with into a frenzy.  Feelings such as a passionate urge to protect children and adolescents are often to intense to be suspended to look at data.  In the midst of all this, moderate and practical ways to address the graphic content of some video games are overlooked in favor of heated philosophical debates.  So for those of you who are parents and/or work with them, here are a few tips and links on how to handle violence in video games:

1. Set console parental controls.  You can set your game consoles to only play games of a certain rating.  If you haven’t done so and are complaining about violence in video games, take some action here.  Here are the how-tos:

XBox Parental Controls

Playstation Parental Controls (Video from CNET

Wii Parental Controls

These are password-protected, and will allow you to set the ratings limits, which brings us to:

2. Know your ratings.  Although I have mixed feelings about the Entertainment Software Rating Board, it’s what we’ve got.  But the ESRB is only as useful if you familiarize yourself with it.  This means not only looking at what each rating means, but using the other resources they have, including mobile tools, setting controls, family discussion guides and other tips for safety.  The message here is that there is more to understanding and moderating access to your child’s gameplay than a rating system, including discussion of in-game content.

3. Make use of graphical content filters.  Many parents, educators and therapists don’t know that a growing number of games have options that can be set to filter out violent graphics, profanity, and alter the experience of game content to a more family-friendly level.  If your child wants a video game, have searching online to see if the game has a GCF be part of the process.  Not only will you be teaching them about consumer choice, but digital literacy as well.  Here are some popular games that have GCFs:

Call of Duty Black Ops 2

Gears of War 3

World of Warcraft

4. MOST IMPORTANT TIP: Parenting has no “settings.”  Parents and educators often want some expert to rely on–don’t try to “park it” that way.  Most games can be rented before you buy them from services like GameFly so you can test drive them.  That’s right, I’m suggesting you play the games yourself so you can make a personally informed decision.  At the very least you should be watching your child play them some of the time, not to be nosy, but because part of your role as a parent is to take an interest in their world.  If you can spend 2 hours going to their Little League game, you can spend an hour watching (if not playing) Borderlands 2.

If you’re an educator or therapist, you’re not off the hook either.  🙂 If you are going to offer opinions on video games and their content, make sure you are playing them.  Chances are you don’t say things like “reading Dickens is dangerous for young minds” if you have never read any of his work.  If you did, you’d probably be out at a book burning rather than reading this blog.  By the same token, don’t presume to opine about video games if you have done nothing to educate yourselves about them.  And please note that asking children about them is a place to start, but by no means sufficient for educating yourself.  If you are a play therapist, please start including 21st century play materials like video games in your repertoire.  And be sure to provide parents with the resources they need to help them make sense of this stuff, such as the resources this post gives you.

Look anyone can have an opinion on video games and violence, but we need practical processes to help people be informed consumers.  This is one parenting issue that has practical, doable options, and is rated “O” for “Ongoing…”

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Avatars & The Curated Self

If I ever meet James Cameron, I hope I will remember to ask him if it was a coincidence that he chose to the make the aliens blue.  His movie, Avatar, garnered 3 Academy Awards for it’s epic tale of humanity’s encounter with the Na’Vi, largely through the creation of avatars, body forms that humans beam their consciousness into so they can mingle and fraternize with the locals.

The concept of the avatar comes originally from Hinduism, and refers to the concept of a God or Supreme Being deliberately descending to earth in a manifest form.  One of the most popular gods for doing this is Vishnu, also blue.  The concept of avatar in  Hinduism is more complicated than this, but the piece of it that pertains to this post is the general concept of the attempt of a supreme being to incarnate part of itself to enter the world.  There is an inherent diminution or derivative quality to it.

If you are more familiar with video games than Hinduism, you are probably more familiar with the concept of an avatar meaning the graphical representation of the player’s character in the game.  When we play Pac-Man, our avatar manifests in the video game as a little yellow circle with a mouth that races around gobbling dots.  Over the decades games and graphics have become capable of more sophisticated avatars ranging from the Viking-like Nords of Skyrim to the soldiers of Call Of Duty.  As these video game worlds proliferate, players descend into them with avatars of many shapes, sizes and species.  Some games, like Eve Online, allow you to customize the features of your avatar extensively; others allow you to pick from a limited number.  We are always diminished by the process of taking on an avatar.  Even if the powers an avatar has in the video game world are immense, it is derivative of the complexity of being human.

What is interesting is that most of us use avatars every day online, we just never realize it.  Video games are just one form of social media, and avatars abound in all of them.  The graphic may be as simple as our picture next to a blog post or comment, or a video on Youtube.  But in the 21st century most of us are digital citizens and use one form of avatar or another.  Some people in the world will only ever know us through our avatar in a video game or Second Life.  And yet we know something of each other.

I think more and more of us are becoming aware of the connection between the avatar and the curated self, the aspects of our psychological self we choose to represent online.  The curated self is the part of ourselves we have some ability to shape, by what we disclose, what graphics we choose, and how we respond to others.  Like an avatar, the curated self at its best is deliberate.  I say at its best, because although the curated self is in our care, we can also be careless with it.

Recently I posted a video of myself on my YouTube channel entitled “Should Therapists & Social Workers Post Videos Of Themselves On YouTube?”  In making the video I chose to wear a bike helmet, and by the end of the post was using the bike helmet as an example of the risks we take when we opt to attempt innovation of our curated self.  The video was designed to inspire critical discussion and thinking, and it did just that.  In some groups where it appeared people described the video and points it was illustrating as “brilliant.”  Other groups interpreted it as an instructional video on how to advertise your therapy practice and lambasted it.  There was a myriad of responses, and I’m sure even more from people who opted not to comment on it.  I received a number of likes of it, and a number of dislikes.

What I think is important and instructional here was how people began to comment through their avatars as if they were addressing the whole person I am rather than an avatar.  And they made incorrect assumptions ranging from my age to my motives.  The bike helmet and my posture on the video became the target for some incredible nastiness disguised as constructive criticism.  From the safety of their own avatars they hurled some invectives at who they thought I was and what they thought I was doing in front of an audience of other avatars who alternately joined in, were silent, emailed me privately to offer words of support, or publicly commented on what they saw.  The irony to me was that people began to demonstrate all of the roles we encounter in “cyberbullying,” which was part of what the video also touched on.  In a perhaps not surpising parallel process, we got to see and play out the sorts of dynamics that our patients and children experience all the time.

We need to remember that every avatar is a derivative of the person.  It is connected enough that we have attachments and responses to it.  We can feel proud or ashamed, hurt or healed through our avatars.  In fact, research from Nick Yee on “The Proteus Effect” has shown that playing a game with a powerful avatar for 90 seconds can give the player increased self-confidence that persists for up to 6 hours.  It stands to reason that if someone experiences their avatar as weak or socially unacceptable for a brief time there may be lasting effects as well.  Behind the guy in a bike helmet is someone else.  He may be a faculty member at Harvard, a sensitive fellow, a father, a student, a man who just lost his partner, a person with a criminal record, or any, all or none of these.  But he is always more than the derivative of his avatar.  We need to practice being mindful of this and model it as we train others to be digital citizens.  It is counterproductive to sound off on cyberbullying to our children or grandchildren, when they can Google us online and see us doing it ourselves.

We also need to help our patients, their families, and colleagues understand the active role we need to take in curating ourselves online.  We need to understand what may happen when we put certain things out there.  For therapists this includes the dilemma of putting out a curated self that resembles what kind of work you would do, while not disclosing or conveying more than you want the world to know.  The example I always use with students and consultees is how I talk about my family but never who they are in particular.  This is deliberate, because it is no big disclosure that I have a family, everyone on the planet has one of sorts with the possible exception of Dolly the cloned sheep.  But beyond that I curate a private self, and let folks project what they may.  If we put out comments describing patients or coleagues as “screwed up,” we are also curating ourself, I suggest poorly.  We need to be mindful that most groups we participate online in are open and searchable.  Many of my colleagues became therapists at least in part because they didn’t want to be known and thought the best defense was a good offense (“We’re here to talk about you, not me.”)  They’re used to sharing the gallows humor with the team, and think the same applies to online.  I’m with Rilke on this one:  “for here there is no place/that does not see you. You must change your life.”

To paraphrase Wittgenstein, “our self is everything that is the case,”  not just one avatar, blog, string of emails or video; not even the composite of all of them.  Nor is our curated self everything that is the case.  We’re more than our Facebook likes or our Twitter following.  Human beings are so much more, much more wondrous and tragic than the curated self.  We descend into the Internet and are diminished, but do bring some deliberate part of ourselves along.  We will only ever know hints and glimmers of ourselves and each other online.  As for the rest:

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” –Wittgenstein

 

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On The Importance Of Feeling Useless

Recently I was being trounced in a game of Call Of Duty 3:  Modern Warfare 3.  Not only was I having a difficult time understanding the lingo and mechanics of the game, the controls for this first person shooter were bewildering to me.  I found myself staring down at the controller more than at the screen.  Why couldn’t I remember what the A button did? Over the course of the week, I was also informed that Halo 4, Assassin’s Creed, and Paper Mario: Sticker Star are also here or on the horizon.

I wasn’t sure when I was going to find the time to try all of these.  I was already behind.  Skyrim had new DLC, Minecraft had different updates for both PC and the XBox 360 versions, and the Secret World and Guild Wars 2 had both been preempted by the latest World of Warcraft : Mists of Pandaria expansion.  And what about Salem?  I had gotten a beta key for that, didn’t that make me obligated to try a little more?  And I won’t even go into the iPad and iPhone games, but Baldur’s Gate was just 3 weeks away…

I write all this because I have found that readers and colleagues often assume that because gaming is an area of clinical practice and focus of mine, that I am up on all of the latest games.  If you have been imagining that I always know what every MMO gamer is talking about, or can jive with adolescents about the finer points of COD: MW3 (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3) and how it differs from Max Payne, you are in for a rude awakening.

I can relate to every therapist who has sat with a patient and said no repeatedly to “Do you know about” questions involving video games.  I can relate to every colleague with thumbs of lead who plays with (against) their patients on XBox.  I too struggle against the countertransference urge to display my “hipness.”  And boy am I tempted sometimes to throw up my hands and say I am so over the latest thing.

But I don’t throw up my hands because I recognize that it is a defense against feeling useless.  Who wants to feel slow, clumsy, behind the times?  Feeling useless coincides with feeling powerless, devoid of meaning or hope, and isolation.  For me, that feeling of uselessness is touching the water’s bottom:  It’s where I kick off.  Uselessness is almost always the feeling that precedes determination for me and the moment when I am closest to getting going again.  Here are just a few reasons why feeling useless can be important:

1.  Feeling useless reminds me of how my patients often feel.  Regardless of age, gender or walk of life, I have sat with people who experience feelings of utter uselessness.  Most kids feel useless in school at one point or another.  Adults tend to embrace amnesia when it comes to remembering how dumb education can make you feel before you feel smart.  They have forgotten what it was like to be called last for the kickball team, or draw and erase and draw until your paper ripped.  And the population of Baby Boomers can feel useless as they sense the impatiences of their younger colleagues in the workplace:  You talk too slow, drive too slow, and why don’t you just retire?  Meanwhile, younger adults send out resume after resume and spend more hours in sweatpants as they feel that they and their education are both useless.  Parents send their children off to college and experience the empty nest, or send them off to war and experience a more terrifying version of uselessness.  We need to remember how it feels to be useless if we are going to stay empathically attuned to our patients.

2. To recognize that you are feeling useless is to begin to wake up.  At least it can be, because the sense of being useless is completely irrational.  There is nobody, not one person on the planet who has nothing to give of themselves.  There is no such thing as a useless person, it is a cognitive distortion.  And the minute we recognize that distortion we can begin to use our observing ego to ask ourselves “who is this who is telling me I am useless?”  Whoever it is, the media, a parent, an old tape running in our head, or all of the above, it is just wrong.  And that’s ok, because we’ve been wrong before, and now that we know it we can begin to gently guide our thinking back to a more rational place.  If this sounds like meditation, that’s probably because it is.

3.  To feel useless is only a feeling.  Sure feelings are important, and a powerful part of human experience.  But they are only one part of human experience.  Thinking and behavior are two other parts.  We can use feeling useless to motivate ourselves.  We can use it as a barometer for our overall mental health.  We can also use it as a defense to stay stuck, or to attempt to elicit pity from others.  There are all sorts of ways we can use a feeling, and they aren’t all necessarily, well, useful.  Or we can just sit still for a bit, because being just a feeling, feeling useless will float by and be replaced by another feeling, and another and another…

So if you are a therapist, and you notice yourself feeling useless, you are one step closer to coming to your senses.  You can become more mindful of how unpleasant the feeling is, and mindful of how your patient may feel when they experience it.  You can remember it is only a feeling, and become curious about it and why it is coming up.  And you can consciously decide how to use it or cope with it, rather than unconsciously act out in response to it.

To return to my video game example, here’s how I used it.  I noticed the feeling and said to myself, “That’s how my patients experience themselves sometimes.”  From there I went on to think, “That’s how the therapists I consult with about technology experience themselves sometimes.”  Interesting information, and it helped me pause a moment more.  And when I sat with it more it occurred to me that there was some symbolic content that had come up in a session recently that I’d overlooked.  And then it occurred to me to write this blog, and as I wrote the first paragraph I remembered how video games are a form of social media, and how my friend Susan Giurleo often reminds me that we don’t need to be on every single platform of it to be technically savvy.  From that stream of consciousness, and more importantly, from my feeling of uselessness, came this post.  And I have no doubt that at least a few of my colleagues will find it useful, which totally debunks the useless Mike theory.

What about you?  What has elicited a feeling of uselessness for you lately?  What is that feeling about, and what are you going to do with it?

 

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Unplanned Obsolescence: Rethinking Play Therapy

Recently I ordered a copy of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which I plan to try this week.  As I have mentioned in a previous post, I am not easily interested by first-person shooters, but as a gamer-affirmative therapist I can’t let my low interest get in the way of educating myself.

I once calculated that by a conservative estimate I had played approximately 27,000 games of Uno in my decade working in a public school as a clinical social worker.  I drove around with a ton of board games and a sand tray as well.  I had learned the value of play therapy at the first placement I ever had as an intern, from Winnicott’s squiggle game to the infamous Talking, Feeling, Doing Game.  This is all a roundabout way of establishing my “street cred” for valuing play therapy.

Back then, I would go home from work, and many times play Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on the Nintendo 64.  My roommate at the time liked to hang out with me while I played and we chatted about life, education (he was a teacher) and politics.  He also liked to imitate the fairy guide in the game, and would often cry out, “Listen!” and offer a couple of tips.

In all those years, it never occurred to me that I could have played those games at school if I’d had an office (and some years I did) or that there was a disconnect between what I was doing with the students (card playing) and what they were talking about (Nintendo, XBox, Playstation.)  I could hold a conversation with them about these things because I played them in my spare time, but the idea of playing them with my students didn’t register as, well, therapeutic.

I am not alone in this.  Many if not most play therapists are not inclined to play video games with their patients, and it is time to rethink this.  When 97% of the boys and 94% of the girls we work with play video games, it is no longer an outlier.  But there are a few fallacies which I think get in the way of play therapists integrating play therapy into the 21st century.

One I hear frequently is that video games don’t require imagination, or offer projections to explore.  But I think this is contempt prior to investigation for the most part.  The proliferation of video games is itself the best evidence that there is imagination going into each generation of games, which are produced by imaginative people who must have been able to develop their imagination in part through video games.  And we don’t start each session making our children build their own dolls and dollhouse from scratch.  We use available tools that do to an extent always structure and limit the imagination.  For example, why does the dollhouse have a pointy roof and two floors?  This is limiting, and in fact didn’t represent 90% of the urban population I worked with at all.  And few play therapists would avoid using Elmo puppets on the grounds that it limits the imagination of the child, even though Elmo is clearly an icon of popular culture.

In fact, play has often had its inception in the popular culture of the time.  We may take chess for granted now, but when it came into being it was a reflection of a medieval monarchy, with kings, queens, and bishops.  Yet play therapists often fall prey to nostalgia, if not luddism, and maintain that there are certain games and play that are relational and therapeutic, and others, usually the modern ones, are not.

This brings me to what I suspect is another reason we resist using video games in play therapy, which is the therapist’s fear of being incompetent or failing at the unfamiliar.  Years of training in a traditional educational model have taught us to silo down in our area of “expertise” as soon as we can.  We “major” in psychology or social work, go to graduate school for advanced specialization, and basically get to a point where we can work in a routine and structured environment.  For years we get in the habit of certain forms of play therapy: Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, cards, chess, dollhouses and telephones.  These are easy and portable, but more importantly perhaps, we know how to play them, so we can not be “distracted” by the game, or lose by design if we want to build the kids self-esteem, and otherwise feel in control of the play situation.

It’s time we work through this resistance.  People can and do have conversations while they play video games, and video games are in themselves social media.  There are plenty of metaphors to explore in and after video gameplay.  Angry Birds is rife with themes of anger, different abilities, and protecting the innocent and defenseless.  Call of Duty can give rise to expression of competition, drives, and the hunger for destruction or cooperation.  And a recent (to me) favorite, Demon Souls, is a tone poem on isolation, yearning to connect, and persistence in the face of despair.

I’m sure I’ll get comments arguing that video games are inherently violent as well.  To which I would respond, just like Battleship and the card game War are inherently violent.  We have become insulated to the violence in them, and it may not have the graphic sophistication of video games.  But the next time you play Battleship ask yourself what you think happened to all the people on the battleships that sunk?  The game doesn’t come with little lifeboats, you’re drowning people.  Play therapy does not avoid violence in its expression.

Virginia Axline, one of the founders of modern play therapy, had 8 guiding principles for play therapists:

  1. The therapist must develop a warm, friendly relationship with the child, in which good rapport is established as soon as possible.
  2. The therapist accepts the child exactly as he is.
  3. The therapist establishes a feeling of permissiveness in the relationship so that the child feels free to express his feelings completely.
  4. The therapist is alert to recognise the feelings the child is expressing and reflects those feelings back to him in such a manner that he gains insight into his behaviour.
  5. The therapist maintains a deep respect for the child’s ability to resolve his own problems if given an opportunity to do so. The responsibility to make choices and to institute changes is the child’s.
  6. The therapist does not attempt to direct the child’s actions or conversation in any manner. The child leads the way; the therapist follows.
  7. The therapist does not attempt to hurry the therapy along. It is a gradual process and is recognised as such by the therapist.
  8. The therapist establishes only those limitations that are necessary to anchor the therapy to the world of reality and to make the child aware of his responsibility in the relationship.

 

Nowhere in there does it say, the therapist sticks with the tried and true games s/he grew up with.  To my colleagues who are ready to decry the death of the imagination and lesser play of video games, I think Axline said it best:  “The child leads the way: the therapist follows.”

Following in the 21st century means having Gameboys and Playstations in our repertoire.  If we don’t keep learning and using technology in our play therapy, we may find ourselves in a state of unplanned obsolesence.  Am I saying we should stop playing Jenga and Uno?  No.  But if our patients are looking for video games amongst the chess sets and dollhouses, perhaps they are telling us something we need to pay attention to.  Just because we don’t know how to play a game doesn’t exempt us from learning it.  And what a gift it can be for an adolescent to experience themselves as more competent and talented by an adult!  So many of them come to us having been labeled as “failed learners,” and we have the potential to help them experience themselves as successful teachers, of us.

Those of us working in agencies and schools need to resist the temptation whenever possible to use the excuse of needing to be mobile or budgetary constraints.  Video games are now as portable as a Nintendo DS PSVita or Smartphone.  And the price of a video game system is not so prohibitive as to be a given.  The real reason we often don’t advocate for video games at the agency or school is our own bias that they are somehow less valuable as therapeutic play media.

I anticipate that this will meet with resounding criticisms from the “play-is-going-to-hell-in-a-hand-basket” crowd, but I’m really interested in hearing from colleagues who have managed to successfully integrate video games into their play therapy.  What are your success stories?  What have been some challenges you’ve had to overcome?  Do you schedule online play sessions?  How do you manage the noise in an office suite?  I’m really interested in your experiences.

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