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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Empathy (Re)Training

 

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Last night I was mining Gold Omber in the asteroid belt near Erindur VI, and I can’t begin to tell you what an accomplishment that was. (This post is not just about spaceships, but about pacifists, Ethiopia and education, so non-gaming educators and therapists keep reading.)  OK, let me tell you why it was an accomplishment.  I am talking about playing the MMO EVE Online, which involves piloting spaceships across vast amounts of space in order to mine, trade, build or pirate among other things.  In essence, your spaceship is your character, with the ship’s parts being the equivalent of your armor and weapons in games like World of Warcraft.  But you can only build or use these parts as your pilot acquires skills, ranging from engineering to planetology to cybernetics, so in that way the player’s pilot is the character in the game.  But at the start of the game you’re told that the pilot is actually a clone (this becomes important later on) and as someone was explaining to me last night the whole cloning thing has its own complications once you start using implants to modify individual clones, which you can only do after you’ve trained the skill of Cybernetics.  And why all that is important is because once you use implants you can learn skills more quickly.

If you think that is confusing, try learning how to use the sprawling user interface or UI, which one of my friends says “was made by demons who hate people, hate their hopes and dreams. Know that you are playing with toys made by demons for their amusement and tread lightly.”  Another way of putting it is that you have keep trying to remember what window you opened in the game to do what, and often have multiple windows open simultaneously in order to figure out what you’re doing or buying or training.  There is a robot tutorial program in the game that helps somewhat, but the whole thing is very frustrating and intriguing for the first several hours of game play.  During this time I was ganked repeatedly, lost lots of loot and ore I had mined, as well as a nice spaceship or two.  So to get to the point where I had learned enough skills to be able to warp halfway across the galaxy, lock onto an asteroid, orbit and mine it while defending myself from marauders was extremely exciting.  I was only able to do this because my above-mentioned friend had given me a much bigger and safer ship than I had started out with, as well as lots of instructions on how to do things; and because I was chatting with people in the game who offered great tips.  Of course one of those people then clicked on my profile in chat to then locate me and gank me again (bye-bye nice ship,) but the knowledge is mine to keep.

By now you may be asking “what has any of this got to do with psychotherapy, social work or education?” so I’ll explain.  I had tried EVE months ago, and given up after about a week of on and off attempts, but this past month I have begun teaching an online course for college educators and MSWs about integrating technology into psychotherapy and education.  One of the required exercises in the course is for the students to get a trial account of World of Warcraft and level a character to 20.  There has been a lot of good-natured reluctance and resistance to doing this, in this class and others:  I have been asked to justify this course material in a way I have never had to justify other learning materials to students.   This included several objecting to playing the game because of violent content prior to playing it much or at all.  It’s as if people were not initially able to perceive the course material of World of Warcraft as being in the same oeuvre as required readings or videos.  It is one thing to bring up in your English literature class that you found the violence in “Ivanhoe” or the sex in “The Monk” objectionable after reading it, but I’ve not heard of cases where students have refused to read these books for class based on those objections.  So I was curious, what made video games so different in people’s minds?

Things became easier for several folks after I set up times to meet them in the game world, and help them learn and play through the first few quests.  As I chatted with them and tried to explain the basic game mechanics I realized that I had learned to take for granted certain knowledge and skills, such as running, jumping, and clicking on characters to speak with them.  I started to suspect that the resistance to playing these games was perhaps connected to the tremendous amount of learning that was having to go on in order to even begin to play the game.  In literacy education circles we would call this  learning pre-readiness skills.  Being thrown into a learning environment in front of peers and your instructor was unsettling, immediate, and potentially embarrassing.  And I think being educators may have actually made this even harder.  Education in the dominant paradigm of the 20th and 21st century seeks to create literary critics and professors as the ultimate outcome of education, according to Ken Robinson.  So here are a group of people who have excelled at reading and writing suddenly being asked to learn and develop an entirely new and different skill set within the framework of a college course:  Of course they were frustrated.

So I started playing EVE again not just to have fun, but to have a little refresher course in empathy.  I have leveled to 90 in WoW, so I know how to do things there, and had begun to forget how frustrating and bewildering learning new games can be.  In EVE I have been clueless and failing repeatedly, and getting in touch with how frustrating that learning curve can be.  I have also been re-experiencing how thrilling it is the first time I make a connection between too concepts or actions in the game:  When I realized that there was a difference between my “Assets” and my “Inventory” I wanted to shout it from the rooftops.  I have begun to see and help my students reflect on similar “learning rushes” when they get them as well.  They are now , in short, rocking the house in Azeroth.

We forget how thrilling and confusing it can be to learn sometimes, especially to the large population on the planet that doesn’t necessarily want to be a college professor or psychotherapist.  We forget that our patients and students are asked to master these frustrations and resistances every day with little notice or credit.

There is a village in Ethiopia, where 20 children were given Xoom tablet computers last year.  The researchers/founders of One Laptop Per Child dropped them off in boxes to these children, who had never learned to read or write.  They were offered no instruction and the only restriction placed on the tablet was to disable the camera.  Within minutes the children had opened the box and learned how to turn the computers on; within weeks they were learning their ABCs and writing; and within months they had learned how to hack into the tablet and turn the camera back on, all without teachers.  This story inspires and terrifies many.  It is inspiring in that it tells the story of what children can learn if they are allowed to be experimental and playful.  It is terrifying because if all this was done without a teacher to lecture or a therapist to raise self-esteem, it raises the question “do we still need them?”

Having played EVE, and taught academics in World of Warcraft, let me assure you that the world still needs teachers and therapists.  But the world needs us to begin to learn how to teach and help in a different way.  If EVE had nothing but online tutorials I would have probably struggled more and given up.  I needed to remain social and related to ask for help, listen to tips, and get the occasional leg up.  We need to retrain ourselves in empathic attunement by going to the places that scare or frustrate us, even if those places are video games.  The relationship is still important; to inspire, encourage and enjoy when learning happens in its myriad forms.  But we need to remember that there are many literacies and that not all human beings aspire to teach an infinitely recurring scholasticism to others.  We need to remember how embarrassing it can be to “not get it,” and how the people we work with every day are heroic that they can continue to show up to live and be educated in a system that humiliates them.

What’s exciting and promising, though, is this simple fact:  Learning is happening everywhere, all the time!  Whether it’s a village in Ethiopia, Elwynn Forest in Azeroth, or in orbit around Erindur VI; learning is happening.  Across worlds real and imagined, rich and poor, learning IS happening.

And we get to keep all the knowledge we find.

 

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Want To Help Stop Youth Cyberbullying? Let Your Kids Raid More.

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The above title is misleading.  In fact it is as misleading as the term cyberbullying, which is an umbrella term used from experiences which range drastically.  “Cyberbullying” has been used to describe the humiliation of LGBT youth via video; the racial hatred of Sikhs on Reddit, the systematic harassment and suicide of a teenage girl by a neighboring peer’s mother; a hoax wherein a Facebooker pretended to be a woman’s missing (for 31 years); and the bad Yelp reviews of a restauranteur in AZ.

Wait, huh?

My point, exactly:  All of the things described above are different in scope, intentionality, form of media used, duration, and impact.  We need to keep this complicated.  This is not to take away from the horrific acts that people  have perpetuated with social media, or excuse them.  Rather I think we need to help kids and their parents find more nuanced ways to make sense of the way newer technologies are impacting us.

Social media amplifies ideas, feelings, and conflicts.  It often dysregulates family systems.   Growing up, many family members didn’t need to learn the level of digital literacy that today’s world requires.  Parents may be tempted to put their children in a lengthy or permanent internet lockdown.  I hear the threats, or read them, all the time:  No screens.  You’re unplugged.  She’s grounded from Facebook.

Please don’t do that.

I’ve worked with a number of young adults who have had the experiences of being on the receiving end of hatred, stalking, harassment and intrusion delivered via the internet.  And thank goodness that their parents didn’t unplug them as kids.  Because they stayed online they got to:

  • learn how to ignore haters
  • see/hear others stand up for them in a social media setting
  • come to the defense of a peer themselves
  • increase their ability to meet verbal aggression with cognition
  • make the hundreds of microdecisions about whether to “fight this battle”
  • seek out support from other peers
  • form strong online communities and followings that helped them cope with and marginalize the aggressors

More and more, online technologies are becoming a prevalent form of communication, and to take away access is to remove the hearing and voice of youth.  To do this is disempowerment, not protection.

I’ve said before that parents need to take an engaged approach with kids in order to be there to help kids understand and process the conflicts that are communicated through and amplified by social media.  But this time I want to go further, and suggest that one way to help kids achieve digital literacy in terms of social skills is to let them play more multiplayer video games.

Many of you probably saw that coming, but for those of you who didn’t, let me explain.  21st century video games are themselves a powerful form of social media.  Multiplayer games allow individuals to band together as guilds, raids, platoons and other groups to achieve higher endgame goals.  Collaboration is built into them as part of the fun and as necessary to meet the challenges.

There are exceptions to this, but it has been my experience that people don’t begin systematic personal attacks on each other when they are in the middle of downing Onyxia.  They are too busy joining forces to win.  I am convinced that much hatred we see in the developed world is there in large part because of boredom and apathy.  Games provide an alternative form of engagement to hatin’

Look, I’m not saying that people playing games never say sexist things, swear, or utter homophobic comments.  But I can say that I have heard more people, adults and children, stand up to hatred in World of Warcraft than I ever have in the 2 decades I worked in public school settings.  I’ve seen racism confronted numerous times in guild chat, seen rules for civility created and enforced over and over, always citing a variation of  the same reason:  “We’re all here to have fun, so please keep the climate conducive to that.”

Video games provide powerful interactive arenas for diverse groups of people to collaborate or compete strategically.  They capture our interest with a different sort of drama than the sort that we see our youth struggle with in other settings.  In fact, for many individuals video games provide a welcome respite from the drama that occurs in those other settings.

Social media does indeed amplify nastiness, harassment and hatred.  It also amplifies kindness, hope, generosity and cooperation.  If we don’t lean into social media with our kids, they’ll never know how to use it to amplify goodness in the world.  Worse yet, if we cut them off from connecting with the world online we’ll deprive them of the necessary opportunities to recognize and choose between good and evil.

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Continuing Education From Pax East

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For those of you who may not know, Pax East is a yearly convention here in Boston celebrating all things video game. This year I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to present there on “Rethinking Gaming Addiction.” If you are interested in seeing what the presentation was about, you can view the Prezi here:

 

 

For those with the stamina, you can find a video of the presentation here:

 

 

And if you want to just listen to it in MP3 form, you can do so here:

 

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Nice Everything You Have There: Mindful Minecraft

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Did you know that Minecraft has a lot to teach us about how we pay attention to, get distracted from, and cope with things? Embedded in the design and the lore of the game are nuggets of philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology. From work/life balance to physical and mental health to the meaning of life Minecraft has something to teach us.

That’s why I decided to present on mindfulness and Minecraft this year at SXSW.  If you were there, thanks for coming, but if you weren’t fret not, for David Smith of Austin, TX was kind enough to videotape the event on his iPhone.  David, thanks for your stamina!  The video is broken into 5 parts, and I’ll include the prezi for you to play with as well:

 

 

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Live At The Cooney Center: “Improving Our Aim: A Psychotherapist’s Take On Video Games & Violence”

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Learn More About Rethinking Video Games & Addiction Here!

 

In the midst of several projects, including the upcoming 2013 SXSW presentation, but wanted to give you a post in the meantime.  Here is the presentation on rethinking gaming addiction I did there last year.

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This can give you an idea of:

  1. The power of Prezi, even in its’ most stripped down version
  2. The visuals that accompanied the presentation you can listen to if you go here
  3. What my approach to technology and psychology is
  4. What my style is as a public speaker

Enjoy, and I will be posting again with bigger news soon!

Like this post?  I can rant in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info?  And, for only $2.99 you can buy my book.  You can also  Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!

 

‘Tis The Season For Power Ups

This time of year is for many of us a time of stress and reflection.  The days get shorter and much of the time it seems as if we are wandering around in darkness waiting for things to change.  We may be pursued by haunting images of past relationships and mistakes we have made.  We may feel like we are doing things over and over the same way expecting different results.  We may become painfully aware of our repetition compulsion even as we charge around trying to get something to fill us up.  We may dread the end and fear death.

You all know I’m talking about Pac-Man, right?

No, seriously, by now everyone on the planet, gamer or not, must know that Pac-Man is not just a fun video game but a compelling spiritual meditation.  First off, Pac-Man is walking a labyrinth over and over, focusing on his path, how mindful is that?  And then there are the ghosts, don’t even get me started on them.  They pursue him constantly, like the specter of death or the ruminating thought that can’t be shaken.  They are constantly somewhere on the board with him, yet Pac-Man is essentially alone in the world.

This would all be pretty depressing if it weren’t for the power-ups.  Traditionally there are four of them, in the form of larger blinking white dots in the corners of the maze.  You probably recall the drill:  Pac-Man runs away from the ghosts until he finally eats one of those power-ups.  And then everything changes.  The ghosts turn blue and run away from him, and he can eat them for more points.  Yep, turns out Pac-Man applies good old Buddhist principles to the whole situation:  He faces his fears, and moves toward them.  As Pema Chodron would say, Pac-Man goes to the places that scare him and leans into the sharp points.

Ok, so back to you and your life, or your business or your family or your health, whatever situation or ghostly thoughts are running around the maze in your head.  Let’s do some Pac-meditation on them:

1. Who’s chasing you?  Take a moment to stop rushing around and ask yourself what are you worrying about?  Are you legitimately busy or being hectic?  Remind yourself that in this present moment, the people, places or things you may be avoiding are probably not really there in front of you. If you aren’t physically moving, then remind yourself of that with a breath or two. If you feel like you are moving and you really aren’t, gently remind your mind of that.  And if you are moving, try moving like you are walking a labyrinth not running around a maze: purposefully, single mindedly.  Mindfulness is the difference between a maze and a labyrinth.

2. Don’t let the bouncing fruit distract you.  This time of year especially it is easy to get thrown off course because you can become fixated on one goal: The perfect gift, the perfect holiday dinner, the New Year’s resolution to change X,Y, or Z.  Much of it is hype or a collective hysteria.  Look again, there isn’t one special dazzling fruit (or pretzel) that you have to have to win.  Nope, it’s just ordinary time, the present moment stretching out before you like a string of yummy pellets.  Enjoy those quiet unassuming moments where everything is calm and sufficient.

3. Know your ghosts.  Take a few minutes now to get to know your four ghosts.  This doesn’t need to be all psychoanalytic.  Just try to list off 1-4 things that are most pressing to worry about.  The ghosts often have less scary identities than you may suspect:

Those are the traditional names, but now let’s have you take your ghosts and put your names on them.  For example they could be:

Try to limit the ghosts to four–Remember, this isn’t Space Invaders.  What are the most pressing urgent concerns?  The goal is to get them down and begin to do what Michael White referred to as “externalizing the problem.”

Now you’re ready for…

4. Identify your power-ups.  What are those things that help you feel more powerful, more effective?  Some people identify a song that powers them up to go to the gym.  A favorite quote can be your power-up.  In my office I have one of those Staples Easy Buttons which some people find useful.  My own personal power-up is an Iced Venti Americano at Starbucks.  Sometimes power-ups are specific to the particular ghost you are dealing with, sometimes one power-up works for many different ones.  This is not a new concept, people have been using talismans for years.  Object relations folks would probably call power-ups “transitional objects.”

Last, but not least:

5. Use your power-ups.  This is not as easy as it sounds.  People often forget they have power-ups even after they have identified them.  You need to make sure your power-up is ready at hand.  If yours is an Easy button, you need to keep it at your workspace in plain view.  If it is fresh orange juice you need to make sure there is some in the fridge.  If it is a song it needs to be downloaded on all your gadgets.  If prayer or meditation is your power-up put the cushion on the floor in front of your bedroom doorway.  Enlist your partner or family members to remind you that you have these power-ups.  Then use them no matter how silly it feels, no matter how hopeless you feel.  Just. Use. Them.

This isn’t the only time of year you can use power-ups, but it is definitely a good time to start.  Not because it is the holiday season, but because it is the present.  Right now you are awake, so you can reflect and take action.  The only person stopping you from logging off and figuring out your ghosts and power-ups is you: Game on!

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Minecraft & The Uncanny, Part 2

This is the second of a two part series on Minecraft.  Up until now you could only read it if you bought my book, but I am posting it here to give you a sense of what the book is like.  You can buy it here.  More importantly, I’m hoping you will find the topic interesting enough to vote for my presentation proposal on Minecraft & Mindfulness for SXSW this year.  You can do that here.

In Minecraft, nothing is present-at-hand, at least initially, until you realize that the ground you are running on or the mountain you are climbing aren’t just that, they are materials.  You can dig up stone to make a furnace, then bake bricks out of clay, build a house and so on.  The world gradually becomes ready-to-hand.

There is no avoiding the sense of throwness when you begin playing Minecraft.  It comes with very few directions, although there is plenty of info on the web to be had.  The downloadable beta allows you to play single and multi-player, with the single being a good way to practice the basic mechanics.  The multiplayer version opens up a whole new vista.

The multiplayer game is hosted on individual servers all over the world, some of which you can log into for free, others for a small fee.  Once logged in, the virtual world is a huge massively multiplayer sandbox, which can be a very social experience.  The cooperative building in some of these worlds is incredible.  My first journey to a server in France threw me into a world which included a vast underground city beneath a dome of molten lava.  Players are allowed to explore the world, and at a certain distance from their neighbors mine, farm and build.  Like Second Life, you can port to various places on the server, and encounter anything ranging from a Waterslide Park to a model of Hyrule, all built out of the game materials by the players.

Once in the multiplayer world, the social element of the game can become compelling.  People on chat are offering to sell gold ingots, suits of armor they crafted, or tracts of land they have developed, for both in-game and out of game monies.  You can have as much or as little to do with that as you like, and you can teleport to far-off corners of the map if you want to build and play in undeveloped lands.

In its simple mechanics, Minecraft allows us to glimpse the uncanny experience that I would suggest all video games have.  Video games are a unique art form in that they are both interactive and aesthetic by nature.  In fact they are far more stimulating and less anergic than watching television, and stimulate more regions of the brain.

Video games allow us to experience our throwness in a new world, and the animistic state of being inherent in the uncanny. We are never completely at home in the world of the game, although the game may become more familiar over time (or not, in the case of the indie game Limbo.)  We are always just visiting, strangers in a strange land.  But within the game world, mana and magic are also real, and our thoughts and strategies can quickly and permanently change the world.

Psychotherapy is in many ways, another sandbox game.  There really is no way to win in it.  The office becomes a setting for a potential space that can be shaped and altered by the patient and something new created.  Psychotherapy is also an uncanny space, one that resembles the world outside the office and yet does not.  It is a place for “everything that ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light.”  Within that space, the patient experiences hauntings by ghostly relationships from the past, encounters the internal monsters of the drives, and explores the wishes behind their secret injurious powers.  Unexplored and avoided, these have calcified into symptoms, and the anxious, exciting, process of therapy helps the patient break down that calcification for a more flexible psyche.

Any child or gamer knows that play is a serious and dangerous business.  There is always the risk of annihilation, and no place worth going to doesn’t have its hazards.  But there are great treasures to be found in the game.  Further, the emotional and intellectual changes encountered within the game can then be taken out of it into the daily life of the gamer.  This is one of the reasons that video games are so compelling.  Why else would people spend hours making houses out of pixel bricks?

Both psychotherapy and video games create very real thought and feeling states in people, and that is part of their curative power.  In this book I hope I have shown that they can restore a sense of purpose and achievement that our patients have lost.  I have discussed how they can help people stay connected with others over great distances in times of duress, help us feel the sense of achievement necessary to learn and change behaviors, and explore aspects of their personalities that may be less easily seen or developed in their daily lives.  I have also explored how we can use the experience and metaphors from video games with patients to help them understand ego defenses, communication patterns and strategies that impact their relationships, and apply game mechanics to their lives to change them.  I have tried to discuss the stigmatization of gamers and technology in terms of diversity, in particular social class.  Finally, I hope I have shown how therapists can apply the principles from video games and gamification to impact both their clinical work and business skills.

All of this pales in comparison to doing the actual work, and by this I mean two things.  The first and most obvious one is the practice of psychotherapy.  Theory is a necessary but insufficient precursor to clinical practice and healing.  The second piece of actual work will be for the therapist to begin playing some video games.  Reading is not the same as doing, and it is only by entering the uncanny and enriching world of the video game that therapists can hope to truly understand them.  Never has play been more important in our work, and never has understanding video games been more urgent in healing the world.  To do so we need to rethink our attitudes and reconsider our biases towards gaming and technology.

It’s time to reset.

Gamer Therapist is on vacation, so we’ll see you in two weeks!  In the meantime, please vote for our minecraft panel at SXSW!

Like this post? There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book. I can rant in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.  Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!

Minecraft & The Uncanny, Part 1

This is the first of a two part series on Minecraft.  Up until now you could only read it if you bought my book, but I am posting it here to give you a sense of what the book is like.  You can buy it here.  More importantly, I’m hoping you will find the topic interesting enough to vote for my presentation proposal on Minecraft & Mindfulness for SXSW this year.  You can do that here.

In 1919 Freud wrote and published an article on “The Uncanny.”  In it he described the concept of the uncanny as a specific type of fear something both strange and familiar.  It is worth noting that the article begins with an investigation into aesthetics, something that was not usually done in the medical literature of Freud’s time.  But Freud realized that there was something particularly aesthetic about the uncanny.  It is an anxiety that both draws on the aesthetic, and from a distance also acquires an aesthetic quality itself.  In fact, it could be argued that a whole genre of fiction, such as Lovecraft, embodies the aesthetic of the uncanny.

In German, the uncanny is unheimlich, which translates literally to the “unhomely” or “unhomelike.”  Here homely has a double meaning.  First homely is the quality of domesticity, the warm hearth of the house, down comforters, a cheery cottage coziness, etc.  Second, heimlich refers to concealment, contained within the house’s domestic sphere, hidden from the public eyes of outside society.

Seen in this light, the uncanny or unheimlich is both alien and a revelation or an exposure.  Freud quotes Schelling as saying that ‘“Unheimlich” is the name for everything that ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light..’” Is it any wonder that Freud took up exploration of this concept, with all of its allusions to the unconscious, anxiety, and societal repression?

Freud also talks about the element of repetition in the uncanny, such as arriving at certain places we’ve been to before, or noticing the number 62 appearing throughout the day in a variety of places.  This element of repetition gives rise to the sense that there is a pattern that we may not be aware of, which in turn makes the world suddenly seem both stranger and more imbued with meaning.

Freud goes on to discuss something gamers will be very familiar with, mana, although he discusses it from outside the framework of fantasy as a form of magical thinking that attributes powers to the neurotic overvaluation of their thought processes and their impact on reality.  But the game world is within the realm of fantasy.  Within that world, what Freud refers to as “the Apparent death and the re-animation of the dead” are fairly commonplace.  The game world returns us in many ways to the animistic state of being, characterized by “the prompt fulfilment of wishes, with secret injurious powers and with the return of the dead.”

The uncanny also figures largely in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and is connected to the idea of man’s “throwness” into the world.  Human beings want to feel at home in the world, but when they encounter the uncanny they experience themselves as thrown into it and apart from it.  For Heidegger the unheimlich eradicates our sense of Being-at-home-in-the-World, but as it does so it reveals something about the World to us.

For Heidegger the World is also revealed to us (and we are revealed as well) by that which is ready-to-hand, something that has a meaning that connects us to the world.  An example is a hammer, which we experience as imbued with meaning and value and inextricably linked to human being.  We don’t think about the hammer, in fact the only time we are really conscious of it is when it isn’t working.  A similar example is your car, if you reflect on it you will probably notice that you only really pay attention to your car as a concept when it isn’t working.

As opposed to ready-to-hand, present-at-hand refers to an uninvested, detached way of looking at something, one that takes us out of any sort of meaningful relationship.  Its meaning may be unclear and unconnected with human being at all.  If I ask you what you’d like to do with that round green and red thing, you’ll be confused.  But if you see it as an apple, things will become much clearer.  It probably isn’t a coincidence, by the way, that most depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden show the fruit as an apple.  Before the Fall, everything is ready-to-hand and imbued with meaning.  Afterwards, in our thrown state, things become less clear, and more uncanny.  Paradise has been lost.

Ninety years after Freud wrote “The Uncanny,” Markus “Notch” Persson created the game Minecraft.   Minecraft is a sandbox type of video game, meaning that the world generated can be permanently changed by the player.  Creativity and survival is the goal, and there is no way to “win” the game.  The premise of the game is that your character is thrown into a vast world designed with 8-bit graphics (think early Nintendo) with only your bare hands.  The game has a day and night cycle, and at night zombies, skeletons, and other monsters come out and will attack you if you are exposed.

Everything in the game world can be destroyed and broken down into elements that can be crafted if you have the right ingredients.  At first you have fewer options, because destroying a tree with your hands takes more time than if you had an axe.  But slowly you gather materials so that you can build things that in turn allow you to build more things, so that you can hopefully build a shelter before night falls.

The landscape of the world is randomly generated by the game, and remains saved if you are killed.  Dig a hole in the ground and it will be there when you return from the dead and to the game.  The graphics are not realistic, with the blocky edges of 8-bit design, which underscores the uncanny element of the world.  The world is vast, and looks like the real world, and also doesn’t.  Minecraft is not trying to trick you into thinking it looks like real life, in fact that is one of the things that makes it so immersive.

Part 2, next week.

Like this post? There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book. I can rant in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.
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