Innovation is Dangerous & Gaming Causes Asperger’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like this post? I can speak in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info. And, for only $4.99 you can buy my book. You can also Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!

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.

Find this video interesting? I can speak in person too:  Check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info. And, for only $4.99 you can buy my book. You can also Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!

 

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

2057142-shepards

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

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

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

21st Century Play

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

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

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

Solo Play is OK

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

The Many Reasons to Collaborate.

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

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

Let’s Bring On A World of Hurt.

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

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

Multiplayer and Uninvited Guests

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

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

Minecraft and the Repetition Compulsion.

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

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

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

I’m not THAT non-directive.  🙂

 

Like this post? I can speak in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info. And, for only $4.99 you can buy my book. You can also Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!

Bad Object Rising: How We Learn to Hate Our Educated Selves

Recently I had the opportunity to work with a great set of educators in a daylong seminar.  One of the things I do with teachers when I present is have them play Minecraft.  In this case I started off by giving a general presentation that ended with a story of auto-didactism in an Ethiopian village, where 20 children who had never seen the printed word were given tablets and taught themselves to read.  I did this in part to frame the pedagogy for what came next:  I had them turn on Minecraft and spend 30 minutes exploring the game without any instruction other than getting them networked.

The responses were as varied as the instructors, but one response fascinated me in particular.  Midway into the 30 minutes, one teacher stopped playing the game and started checking her email.  Later, when we returned to our group to have a discussion about the thoughts and feelings that came up around game play, this same teacher spoke up.  We were discussing the idea of playfulness in learning when she said , “you know, I hear a lot about games and learning, and making learning fun; but sometimes learning isn’t fun and you have to do it anyway.  Sometimes you just have to suck it up and do the work.”

“I’m not saying that I disagree with you entirely,”  I said.  “But then how do we account for your giving up on Minecraft and starting to check your email?”

She looked a little surprised, and after a moment’s reflection said, “fair enough.”

I use this example because these are educators who are extremely dedicated to teaching their students, and very academically educated themselves.  Academia has this way, though, of seeping into your mind and convincing you that academics and education are one and the same.  They’re not.

I worked in the field of Special Education for more than a decade from the inside of it, and one of the things I came to believe is that there are no unteachable students.  That is the good news and the bad news.  Bad news because if a student was truly unteachable, they wouldn’t learn from us that they are dumb or bad if they don’t demonstrate the academic achievement we expect.  I remember the youth I worked with calling each other “SPED monkeys” as an insult; clearly they learned that from somewhere and someone.  They had learned to hate themselves as a bad object, in object relations terms, or to project that badness onto other students.  They learned this from the adults around them, from the microaggressions of hatred they experienced every day:  By hate I’ll go with Merriam as close enough, “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.”

We tend to mistakenly equate hatred with rage and physical violence, but I suggest that this is because we want to set hatred itself up as hated by and other from ourselves; surely we never behave that way.  But hatred is not always garbed in extremis.  Hatred appears every day to students who don’t fit the academic mold.  Hatred yells “speak English!” to the 6 year olds getting off the bus chatting in Spanish.  Hatred shakes its head barely (but nevertheless) perceptibly before moving on to the next student when the first has fallen silent in their struggle.  Hatred identifies the problem student in the class and bears down on her, saying proudly, “I don’t coddle my students.”  And Hatred shrugs his shoulders when the student has been absent for 3 weeks, and waits for them to be dropped from the rolls.

I’m not sure how I came to see this, because I was one of the privileged academically.  I got straight A’s, achieved academic awards and scholarships that lifted me into an upperclass world and peer group.  I wrote papers seemingly without effort, read for pleasure, and was excited to get 3 more years of graduate school.  And I have had the opportunity to become an educator and an academic myself, having taught college and graduate students.  I could have stayed quiet and siloed in my area of expertise, but work with differently-abled learners taught me something different.  It taught me that people learn to dislike education, shortly after academia learns to dislike them.

Perhaps one of the best literary portrayals of  adult hatred of divergent thinkers comes from the movie Matilda:

“Listen, you little wise acre. I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Nowadays I teach in a much different way than I did early on, before I flipped my classrooms and facilitated guided learning experiences rather than encourage people to memorize me and ideas that I had memorized from others.  And I struggle with this new approach, because I enjoy it so much I feel guilty.  You see, I have internalized the bad object too.  Even with my good grades I internalized it.  And any time I start to depart from the traditional mold of the educated self, I experience a moment of blindness, then a stony silence that seems to say, “you’re being lazy, you should make them a powerpoint and prepare a lecture.”  Yet, if my evaluations on the whole and student and colleague testimonies have truth to them, I am a “good” educator.  So let’s say I am a “good” educator, and if I as a good educator struggle with this, we shouldn’t assume that people that struggle with these issues are “bad” educators.

In fact, when it comes to emerging technologies like social media and video games, educators often try to avoid them, if not because they are fun and suspect, then because educators risk experiencing themselves as the bad object: Who wants to experience themselves as hopelessly dumb, clumsy or lazy when they can experience themselves as the bountiful and perfectly cited fount of all wisdom?  Truth is, both are distorted images of the educated self.

Don’t forget that educators themselves experience tons of societal hatred.  For them it often comes in the guise of curriculum requirements or linking their performance to outcomes on standardized testing.  Hatred comes in the low salaries and the perception that people doing intellectual or emotional labor aren’t really working.  All of this helps educators to internalize a bad object which feels shaming and awful; is it any wonder that we sometimes unconsciously try to get that bad object away from ourselves and locate it in the student?

The good news as I said before is that we are all teachable.  We can learn to make conscious and make sense of the internalized bad object representations.  We can see that thinking of people in terms of smart or dumb is a form of splitting.

And yes, there’s a lot we can do about it.

Like this post? I can speak in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info. And, for only $4.99 you can buy my book. You can also Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!

 

Continuing Education From Pax East

paxeast-pictures-epl-322

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:

 

Like this post?  I can speak in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.  And, for only $4.99 you can buy my book.  You can also  Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!

 

 

Nice Everything You Have There: Mindful Minecraft

2013-03-08_22.06.42

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:

 

 

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!

Happy New Year!

brave_-_h_2012.jpg_rgb

 

As we start the New Year I wanted to share a quote I think applies to you:

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

— Arthur Schopenhauer

Going into the New Year, entertain the possibility that you are a genius.  Whether you are a gamer playing first-person shooters, a therapist trying to build your private practice, an educator trying to reach students, or someone trying to live a good life, ask yourself:  What are the targets you can see that other people can’t?

Don’t expect praise, people will think you are crazy for shooting into thin air.  You may be bullied, insulted or ignored, but remember you are not alone.  Find that person or group who believes in you even though they can’t see your target.  Those are true people of faith in your life.

Does this mean you’ll be coasting?  Nope.  It takes practice allowing yourself to look for things invisible to most.  It takes constant effort to hone your talent.

If you play Minecraft, think of 2013 as your new sandbox.  2013 is loaded with things you’ve not discovered yet.  Any rock could conceal diamonds or ore.  You will encounter creepers when you least expect them, lose things and have setbacks.  But you can opt for multiplayer, and build in community.  All of the materials are there for you.  You may think you are starting with nothing, but you always have the tools to build tools.

If you keep at it you can change the world.

Whether you are a regular visitor or a loyal follower of this blog, thank you.  In case you missed them, below are the 5 most popular posts from this year:

 

Dopey About Dopamine: Video Games, Drugs, & Addiction

Epic Mickey and Frittering

Gamer Therapy

How to Get Taken Seriously as a Mental Health Professional

Skyrim, Stealing & Sadism

 

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!

On The Importance Of Feeling Useless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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 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.
Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!