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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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 Lava Expert

lava cave

“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.

*  *  *  *  *

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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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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The Relationship Between Emerging Technology & Psychodynamic Theory

Often when I present, people are surprised that I teach on both emerging technologies such as social media and video games, and classic psychodynamic theories.  Although it may initially seem counterintuitive, especially to classically trained psychotherapists and social workers, I see a strong connection between the two.  Here is the first in a series of posts featuring work I am doing with the University at Buffalo, in which Charles Syms and I discuss the relationship between the two.

 

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Selfie Esteem

Nancy J. Smyth, PhD, Dean & Professor, University at Buffalo

Nancy J. Smyth, PhD, Dean & Professor, University at Buffalo

 

“Photographs do not explain, they acknowledge.” –Susan Sontag

Last month, the Oxford Dictionary made the word “selfie” not only an official word, but their word of the year for 2013.  Defining selfie as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website” the OD made explicit what has implicitly grown to be the norm of our world; a world of smartphones, self pics and social media.

Many psychotherapists and social workers have and will continue to decry this as another sign the the “narcissism” of our age.  Selfies have become synonymous with the millenials, the dumbing down of the populace by the internet, and sometimes even stretching to how Google is making us stupid.  My chosen profession has historically played fast and loose with calling people and cultures narcissistic.  Karen Horney coined the term “the neurotic personality of our time” in the 1930s, initially in part as a critique to the Freudian critique of Victorian modesty.  Kohut’s groundbreaking work on “tragic man,” and the healthy strands of narcissism in human life was co-opted within years by Lasch (1979) to describe the then-current “culture of narcissism.”  In short, even though narcissism has been a part of human being at least since Narcissus gazed into the water in Greco-Roman times, we continue to see it as perennially on the uprise.

 

Joanna Pappas, Epic MSW Student

Joanna Pappas, Epic MSW Student

 

This dovetails with each generation’s lament that the subsequent one has become more self-absorbed.  And yet, as Sontag points out, by making photography everyday, “everybody is a celebrity.”  Yep, that’s what we hate about the millennials, right?  They think everything is an accomplishment, their every act destined for greatness.  But as Sontag goes on to say, making everybody a celebrity is also making another interesting affirmation: “no person is more interesting than any other person.”

 

Jonathan Singer, Assistant Professor, Temple University

Jonathan Singer, Assistant Professor, Temple University

 

Why do many of us (therapists in particular) have a problem then with selfies?  Why do we see them as a “symptom” of the narcissism of the age?  Our job is to find the interesting in anyone, after all. We understand boredom as a countertransference response in many cases, our attempt to defend against some projection of the patient’s.  So why the hating on selfies?

I think Lewis Aron hits on the answer, or at least part of it, in his paper “The Patient’s Experience of the Analyst’s Subjectivity.”  In it he states the following:

 

I believe that people who are drawn to analysis as a profession have particularly strong conflicts regarding their desire to be known by another; that is, they have conflicts concerning intimacy.  In more traditional terms, these are narcissistic conflicts over voyeurism and exhibitionism.  Why else would anyone choose a profession in which one spends one’s life listening and looking into the lives of others while one remains relatively silent and hidden?

(Aron, A Meeting of Minds, 1996, p. 88)

 

In other words, I believe that many of my colleagues have such disdain for selfies because they secretly yearn to take and post them.  If you shuddered with revulsion just now, check yourself.  I certainly resemble that remark at times:  I struggled long with whether to post my own selfie here.  What might my analytically-minded colleagues think?  My patients, students, supervisees?  I concluded that the answers will vary, but in general the truth that I’m a human being is already out there.

 

Mike Langlois, PvZ Afficianado

Mike Langlois, PvZ Afficianado

 

Therapists like to give themselves airs, including an air of privacy in many instances.  We get hung up on issues of self-disclosure, when what the patient is often really looking for is a revelation that we have a subjectivity rather than disclosure of personal facts.  And as Aron points out, our patients often pick up on our feelings of resistance or discomfort, and tow the line.  One big problem with this though is that we don’t know what they aren’t telling us about because they didn’t tell us.  In the 60s and 70s there were very few LGBT issues voiced in therapy, and the naive conclusion was that this was because LGBT people and experiences were a minority, in society in general and one’s practice in specific.  Of course, nobody was asking patient’s if they were LGBT, and by not asking communicating their discomfort.

What has this got to do with selfies?  Well for one thing, I think that therapists are often similarly dismissive of technology, and convey this by not asking about it in general.  Over and over I hear the same thing when I present on video games–“none of my patients talk about them.”  When I suggest that they begin asking about them, many therapists have come back to me describing something akin to a dam bursting in the conversation of therapy.  But since we can’t prove a null hypothesis, let me offer another approach to selfies.

All photographs, selfie or otherwise, do not explain anything.  For example:

 

looting

 

People who take a selfie are not explaining themselves, they are acknowledging that they are worth being visible.  Unless you have never experienced any form of oppression this should be self-evident, but in case you grew up absolutely mirrored by a world who thought you were the right size, shape, color, gender, orientation and class I’ll explain:  Many of our patients have at least a sneaking suspicion that they are not people.  They look around the world and see others with the power and prestige and they compare that to the sense of emptiness and invisibility they feel.  Other people can go to parties, get married, work in the sciences, have children, buy houses, etc.  But they don’t see people like themselves prevailing in these areas.  As far as they knew, they were the only biracial kid in elementary school, adoptee in middle school, bisexual in high school, trans person in college, rape survivor at their workplace.

So if they feel that they’re worth a selfie, I join with them in celebrating themselves.

As their therapist I’d even have some questions:

  • What were you thinking and feeling that day you took this?
  • What do you hope this says about you?
  • What do you hope this hides about you?
  • Who have you shared this with?
  • What was their response?
  • What might this selfie tell us about who you are?
  • What might this selfie tell us about who you wish to be?
  • Where does that spark of belief that you are worth seeing reside?

In addition to exploring, patients may find it a useful intervention to keep links to certain selfies which evoke certain self-concept and affect states.  That way, if they need a shift in perspective or affect regulation they can access immediately a powerful visual reminder which says “This is possible for you.”

Human beings choose to represent themselves in a variety of ways, consciously and unconsciously.  They can be whimsical, professional, casual, friendly, provocative, erotic, aggressive, acerbic, delightful.  Are they projections of our idealized self?  Absolutely.  Are they revelatory of our actual self? Probably.  They explain nothing, acknowledge the person who takes them, and celebrate a great deal.  If there is a way you can communicate a willingness see your patient’s selfies you might be surprised at what opens up in the therapy for you both.

 

Melanie Sage, Assistant Professor, University of North Dakota

Melanie Sage, Assistant Professor, University of North Dakota

 

In other posts I have written about Huizinga’s concept of play.  Rather than as seeing selfies as the latest sign that we are going to hell in a narcissistic handbasket, what if we looked at the selfie as a form of play? Selfies invite us in to the play element in the other’s life, they are not “real” life but free and unbounded.  They allow each of us to transcend the ordinary for a moment in time, to celebrate the self, and share with a larger community as a form of infinite game.

It may beyond any of us to live up to the ideal that no one is less interesting than anyone else in our everyday, but seen in this light the selfie is a renunciation of the cynicism I sometimes see by the mental health professionals I meet.  We sometimes seem to privilege despair as somehow more meaningful and true than joy and celebration, but aren’t both essential parts of the human condition?  So if you are a psychotherapist or psychoeducator, heed my words:  The Depth Police aren’t going to come and take your license away, so go out and snap a selfie while everyone is looking.

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Evocation and Mindfulness: Or, How to Think Better

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Like other art forms, video games can be both a mirror and a candle held up to our culture, at times reflecting it and at times revealing things about it.  Normally I direct my posts primarily at people: therapists, gamers, educators, parents.  But today I want to include the company that produces World of Warcraft as well.  We have a crisis regarding thinking, and although I don’t think WoW created it at all, it has reflected it in a recent game mechanic change.

I am referring to a change mages that happened recently, where the spell Evocation was replaced by Rune of Power.  For people not familiar with the game, here’s a simple explanation.  Mages cast spells, but spells require an energy called mana, which gets used up gradually as you cast spells.  How much mana you start with depends on your character’s intellect, and once you have used up your mana, you can’t cast any more spells until it is replenished.  To replenish it you can either wait and it will gradually return (not the greatest idea in combat,) or eat and drink (not possible while you are in combat.)  Or you could in the older days cast Evocation, which meant you stood in place as the spell was going, gain 15% of your total mana instantly and another 45% of your total mana over 6 sec.  Move or get attacked, and the spell broke.

This recently was replaced with Rune of Power, which places a rune on the ground, which lasts for 1 min. While standing within 5 yds of it, your mana regeneration is increased by 75% and your spell damage is increased by 15%.  You have to keep remembering to replace it every minute, but that’s not the problem.  It may even be an easier game mechanic, but that’s not the problem either.  My problem with it is how it reflects our dysfunctional attitude about thinking, and specifically our tendency to think of thinking as separate from doing something.

We live in a culture where people frequently worry about things, and in fact have ruminations that are intrusive.  Many people report feeling hijacked by their minds with worrying or intrusive thoughts.  And yet at the same time, few of us seem to mark our time and set it aside specifically for thinking.  We schedule appointments to do things, but thinking isn’t one of them.  We treat thinking, which is intangible, as if it can occur in the same space as doing other activities that are more observable and tangible.  And then we are surprised when our minds rebel and hijack our thinking with thoughts and feelings that come unbidden, when all along we have been failing to cultivate the practice of intentional, mindful thinking about things.

This is where I think Blizzard and Wow initially had it right with Evocation.  It was acknowledging an important truth, that Thinking IS doing something, and when done intentionally it occupies time and has benefits.  Sure you weren’t able to do other things while casting Evocation, but isn’t that the point?  In the real world, when you want to think deeply and seriously about something, you really do need to be intentional about it, and make a space in your day to do it.  Rune of power definitely embraces the multitasking model, which encourages you to set up a rune and then go about your other business while keeping half an eye on it to know when to refresh.  Multitasking is not inherently a bad thing, but there are times and places that intentional thinking may be more appropriate and less anxiety-provoking.

Part of helping patients learn to manage worrying is often to help them set up a specific time for worrying about things.  This “worry time” can be a placeholder in the day or week which the patient uses when an intrusive worry enters into their thinking: They can dismiss it by deciding to put that on the agenda for the scheduled worry time.  This is a way of training your mind to be intentional about what you choose to think about and when.  But implicit in this is the idea that training your mind to think about things intentionally is a learned skill.

You can apply this to many different aspects of your life and work.  If you are growing your private practice, when was the last time you set aside an hour to think deeply about your business plan or clinical focus.  I’m not talking about daydreaming here, I’m talking about sustained intentional thought.  Clinically, do you set aside supervision time to think deeply about patients?  As students do you take 15 minutes after each article to think specifically about the reading?  As parents, when was the last time you said to your co-parent, let’s make a time to think together about how our child is doing in life at home and school.  Classroom teachers, when was the last time you asked students to take 5 minutes and think quietly about the classroom topic?

Another challenge here is the confusion of tongues around the concept of thinking.  Self-help gurus often exhort us to stop thinking about things and JUST DO IT.  But I don’t think they are talking about intentional thinking, I think they are talking about reactive or intrusive thinking.  Procrastination is reactive thinking, worrying can be intrusive thinking.  Those are often roadblocks to success, but the form of thinking I have been referring to is perhaps better described as a form of concentration meditation.  Concentration meditation has come to be seen by many of us as concentrating on an image, or a candle, or chanting, or a revered object, but that is not necessarily the case, and in fact it is limiting.

What if your idea is the revered object?  What if your thought process about your work, child, patient, class is worthy of your undivided attention?  What if you were to schedule a specific time to think about a certain project?

If you are one of those detractors who say, “I just don’t have time to think,” I don’t buy it.  Thinking time is not a luxury item, although it may be a learned discipline to set aside a few minutes at a time to do it.  So please take a second and schedule a time on your calendar to think about an idea that is important to you.  Schedule a time to hold your random worries and thoughts and show up at that appointed time to seriously consider them.  I suspect this will free up more mental space and time than you may imagine.

And please Blizzard, bring back Evocation.  I miss it, and the important life lesson in mindfulness it has to teach us.

 

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The Internet Is Not A Meritocracy, That’s Why You Hate It

lightbulb

Recently, I had a discussion with a student about social media, and the fact that I usually start off a comment on a blog with “great post!”  She noted two things:  First, that it rang false to her initially, making her wonder if I even read the posts people write; and second, that despite this initial impression she found herself commenting anyway.  So let me define what a great post is.

A great post is one that captures your interest and keeps the thoughtful discourse going.

Now many of my academic readers are going to vehemently disagree.  They may disagree with this blog post entirely, and you know what?  If they comment on it, I’ll publish the comment.  Because the comment keeps the discourse going.

Also recently, I was explaining my pedagogy to colleagues who were questioning my choice to assign a whole-class group assignment for 25% of the student grade.  The concern was that by giving the class a grade as a whole I would run the risk of grade inflation.  This is a real concern for many of my peers in academia and I respect that, and as someone who believes in collaboration I intend to balance advocating for my pedagogical view with integrating the group’s discerning comments and suggestions.  In my blog however, let me share my unbridled opinion on this.

I don’t care about grade inflation.

Really, I don’t.  I went to a graduate school which didn’t have grades, but had plenty of intellectual rigor.  I am more concerned with everyone having a chance to think and discuss than ranking everyone in order.  That is my bias, and that is one reason I like the internet so much.

The old model of education is a meritocracy, which according to OED is:

Government or the holding of power by people chosen on the basis of merit (as opposed to wealth, social class, etc.); a society governed by such people or in which such people hold power; a ruling, powerful, or influential class of educated or able people.

 

I think that Education 2.0 has many of us rethinking this.  Many of our students were indoctrinated into that view of education that is decidedly meritocratic.  I suspect this was part of what was behind my student’s skepticism about “great post!”  My role as an educator in a meritocracy is to evaluate the merit of these comments and ideas, rank them and award high praise only to those which truly deserve it.  By great posting everything I demean student endeavors.

One of my colleagues Katie McKinnis-Dietrich frequently talks about “finding the A in the student.”  This interests me more than the finite game of grading.  Don’t get me wrong, I do offer students choices about how to earn highest marks in our work together, I do require things of them; but I try hard to focus more on the content and discourse rather than grades.

I frequently hear from internet curmudgeons that the internet is dumbing down the conversation.  The internet isn’t dumbing down the conversation:  The internet is widening it.  Just as post-Gutenberg society allowed literacy to become part of the general population, Web 2.0 has allowed more and more human beings to have access to the marketplace of ideas.  We are at an historic point in the marketplace of ideas, where more intellectual wares are being bought and sold.  More discernment is certainly required, but the democratization of the internet has also revealed the internalized academic privilege we often take for granted.  Every ivory tower now has WiFi, and so we can experience more incidents of our sneering at someone’s grammar and picking apart their spelling.  What is revealed is not just the poor grammar and spelling of the other, but our own meritocratic tendencies.

Detractors will pointedly ask me if I would undergo surgery performed by someone who had never been to medical school, and I will readily admit that I will not.  But how can we reconcile that with the story of Jack Andraka, a 15 year-old who with no formal training in medicine created a test for pancreatic cancer that is 100 Times More Sensitive & 26,000 Times Cheaper than Current Tests.  In fact, if you listen to his TED talk, Jack implicitly tells the story of how only one of the many universities he contacted took him seriously enough to help him take this discovery to the next level.  Meritocracy in this case slowed down the process of early intervention with pancreatic cancer.  One side of this story is that this test will save countless lives; the darker side is how many lives were lost because the meritocracy refused to believe that someone who hadn’t been educated in the Scholastic tradition could have a real good idea.

I am urgently concerned with moving education further in the direction of democracy and innovation.  Any post that gets me thinking and interacting thoughtfully with others is a great post.  On a good day I remember this.

But like many academics and therapists and educators and human beings brought up in a meritocracy, I have my bad days.  Like many of you, I fear becoming irrelevant.  I resist change, whether it be the latest iOS or social mores.  Last night I caught myself reprimanding (internally) the guy wearing a baseball cap to dinner in the restaurant I was in.

We still live in a world where only students with “special needs” have individualized education plans– quite frankly, I think that everyone should have an individualized education plan.  I think our days of A’s being important are numbered.  There are too many “A students” unemployed or underemployed, too many untenured professors per slot to give the same level of privilege in our educational meritocracy.  Digital literacy is the new frontier, and I hope our goal is going to be maximizing the human potential of everyone for everyone’s sake.  Yes this is a populist vision, I think the educational “shining city on the hill” needs to be a TARDIS, with room for the inclusion of all.  I also think that those of us who have benefited from scholastic privilege will not give this privilege up easily.  We desperately want to remain relevant.

I know it is risky business putting this out in the world where my colleagues could see it.  I know this will diminish my academic standing in the eyes of many.  I know my students may read it and co-opt my argument to try to persuade me to give the highest grade.  But if I believe in discourse and collaboration I’ll have to endure that and walk the walk.

I’m not saying that every idea is a good one.  What I am saying, what I believe that has changed my life for the better is something I find more humbling and amazing about the human being:  Not every idea is a good one, but anyone, anyone at all, can have a good idea.

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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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