Can’t We All Just Game Along?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Taking Leaps: Fortnite, HIPAA & Psychotherapy

“You keep dying,” Sam* said. The annoyance in the 9 year old’s voice was palpable. I looked at my avatar lying face down on the screen. Another of the 100 players in the game, appearing as a brunette woman in sweats sporting a ponytail, was doing a victory dance with her rifle over me. Sam was nowhere to be seen on the screen, but I knew he was hiding somewhere in the game, and seething.

“You’re disappointed in me,” I said calmly. A moment of quiet.

“Yeah.”

“You were hoping I’d be better at this, as good as you or maybe better, and it’s frustrating.”

“Yeah… Can we try again?”

And so we tried again and again, and while we did I talked with Sam about the other adults who were disappointments to him, who kept leaving or letting him down. And I guessed that we were also talking about his frustration and disappointment in himself. And at the end of our appointment I promised I would practice Fortnite, the game we had been playing. We had turned on our webcams again so we could see each other to finish the session, so I could see that he brightened at this idea.

“Nice to see you again,” I said. He smiled faintly.

“You too.” His screen went dark.

As I reflect on the work I do with patients, meeting them where they are at, I am struck by the same issues, opportunities, and conversations that can happen in an online play therapy session. I only wish more of my colleagues would try it. What gets in the way? For some it is a dismissal of emerging technologies which masquerades a fear of trying something new. For others it is a worry about running afoul of HIPAA and being sued. If you are one of those people who wonders about how to integrate video games online into your therapy practice, read on.

 *  *  *  *  *

Quick, without Googling it; what does the “P” in HIPAA stand for?

If you are a psychotherapist or other health provider, you probably guessed “privacy.” At least that’s often the consensus when I ask this question at my talks. It would be understandable if this was your guess. You’d be wrong.

The correct answer is “portability,” the basic premise that individuals have the right to healthcare treatment that moves with them as they go through the vicissitudes of life and work. That is also where technology comes in– electronic health records, telemedicine, etc., are ways that technology increases portability by collapsing time and space so that the patient and the healthcare professional can get to work.

In therapy, that work traditional has happened in an office setting. And in the case of children and youth especially, that meant play therapy which was bounded by the space and time of a physical office. From Uno to Sandtrays to the infamous “Talking Feeling Doing Game,” we have often assumed that play therapy needs to be the games of our own childhoods. But 21st century play can, and I maintain should, include 21st century play. That’s where video games come in.

In the days of the Atari 2600, there was no worry about patient privacy, because the system was hooked up directly to a television that didn’t even need to be connected to cable. But nowadays with SmartTVs, PCs and PS4s, video games are often played online with many other people and seamlessly connected to voice chat. This can be a concern for the psychotherapist who is unfamiliar with newer technology, especially with games like Fortnite, which boast Battle Royales having as many as 100 players at a time in the same game instance.

Videoconferencing programs and online therapy using video/audio chat have been around long enough to have specifications that adapt to HIPAA’s privacy requirements, largely because there is market force behind developing products that can be sold to the healthcare industry. Video games and their platforms, on the other hand, do not have a similar demand to give them an incentive to supply. Games like World of Warcraft, Platforms like STEAM, and streaming services like Twitch were designed for gamers, not therapists, and it is unlikely they will go through the technical and legal procedures to become HIPAA compliant anytime soon.

Some therapists have begun developing their own video games, which, like most therapy games are dismally boring. They are thinly veiled therapy interventions that are disguised as play, but lack any of the true qualities of play. True, they are more likely private; but they are also boring, and easily recognizable as “not playful” by patients. Mainstream games have broader appeal, critical user mass, and better graphics and gameplay in many cases, and are more immediately relevant to the patient’s life. But they are definitely not HIPAA-compliant. So what to do?

 *  *  *  *  *

My solution, which I’m sharing as an example that has not been reviewed by policy experts, lawyers or the like, has two parts:

  1. Due Diligence– Research the existing privacy settings and technologies to maximize benefit and minimize risk to patient privacy. So for example, I structure the “talk” part of therapy to happen over HIPAA-compliant software like Zoom or GoToMeeting. We start on that platform with video camera on, until we begin playing. Then we, turn off the camera to save on bandwidth and talk over this software, not the game. Previously, I will have sent the patient or their parent a snapshot of the settings of the game we are using with the voicechat disabled if possible. We also want to lower or turn off the game sound so we can hear each other. So in the case of Fortnite, the settings would look like this:

 

2. Limited HIPAA Waiver- This is the part most therapists overlook as even being a possibility. You can ask patients to sign a release waiving in a limited capacity their HIPAA rights in order to use noncompliant technology. It is entirely voluntary and I’ve yet to have a patient decline. I use a informed consent form that I developed that looks like this:

 

These are examples of how to engage with online technologies in a clinical way that is thoughtful yet forward-moving.

 *  *  *  *  *

Whether you love Freud or hate him, most experts agree that he was one of the fathers of modern psychiatry. He was also an early adopter. He based his hydraulic model of the drives on steam technology of his era. His concept of the “mental apparatus” was likewise integrated from the advances in mechanics and his formulation of ego defenses such as projection occurred simultaneously with the Lumiere brothers’ creation and screenings of motion pictures. Regulatory concerns aside, therapists can be early adopters. Doing so would probably help our patients no end, and definitely cut down on my waitlist.

* “Sam” is based on several patients whose identifying information has been disguised to protect patient privacy.

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The Crisis Behind Crises

So far in 2018 alone, I have worked nationwide with the aftermath of one homicide/suicide in a video game server community; one threat issued over another; and 3 new requests for consultations from clinicians on how to improve their work with families and individuals related to online technology. Schools are now fielding multiple incidents of threatening language in chat rooms that get brought to their attention, and not necessarily handling them well. Multiple arraignments in district courts are pending because someone expressed violent language on gaming servers that was deemed threatening. Youth are ending up on probation for this.

I know, you’re probably thinking that I’m about to blame the technology, the erosion of family values, the rise of violence or some other social ill. I’m not. As I reflect over several of these cases, the common symptom I see is not mental illness or family dysfunction, but a crisis in digital literacy.

What all of these cases have in common is that before they got to the emergent stage, there were several opportunities for kids to solve their own problems; for educators to teach; for parents to engage or for therapists to help; if they’d seen the opportunities and had some education in digital literacy. Too often we see the end result of our dismissing or demonizing tech use. “Just leave the server, or Facebook,” we say, unintentionally further isolating kids. “You need to stop playing so many video games,” we opine, citing sketchy research to take away the one thing a person may experience some competency doing.

As a therapist and educator who has worked for the past twenty-five years with emerging technologies in mental health, I have been helping schools, clinics and workplaces identify vulnerabilities before, during and after crises. I assure you that before is the most useful and least utilized. I’m hoping you and your administrators will consider doing this differently. I have started offering custom educational offerings on Healthy Boundaries in the Digital Age, and you can find out more about it here.  I’m still doing my other presentations as well.

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Mindfulness, Minecraft & The I Ching

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

 

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

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A New Startup Focusing on Minecraft & Social Emotional Learning

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Happy New Year, Gentle Reader!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Bringing Emerging Technology into the Clinical Process: Implications for Engagement and Treatment

If you have ever wondered how to begin attending to, listening for, and asking questions about a patient’s use of technology, this video might give you some ideas.  In it my colleague Lesa Fichte, LMSW, University at Buffalo School of Social Work, and I, discuss the role of technology, people’s relationship with technology, and how to integrate it into the treatment process by listening, inquiring, and learning.

 

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