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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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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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.

[gigya ]

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!

 

4 Tips For Dealing With Video Game Violence For Parents

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

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

XBox Parental Controls

Playstation Parental Controls (Video from CNET

Wii Parental Controls

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

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

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

Call of Duty Black Ops 2

Gears of War 3

World of Warcraft

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

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

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

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Epic Every Day: What Video Games and the Millenials Can Teach Us If We Let Them

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The term millennial refers to the generation following mine, Generation X, who were born between the early 80s and 2001.  There certainly may be some differences in the millennial cohort in terms of race and social class, but in my experience working in both urban and suburban settings, technology use is not one of them.  In fact, technology has probably exacerbated some of the traits millennials are known and often criticized for.  Social media has made expression more democratic and amplified, and millennials cite self-expression as extremely important.  Growing up with the internet has also placed them in the same social and informational spheres as their parents more than previous generations, making them more civic-minded than rebellious, and having different, some would say overly dependent, attachments to their parents.

Common complaints about millennials include that they are entitled, tethered to their parents, unable to tolerate longterm goals, averse to sustained effort and require a constant stream of praise for the most minimal pieces of work.  The other side of this coin is worth noting, too:  Higher sense of self-expression has led to millennials’ higher acceptance of diversity in others; they are more comfortable with switching jobs or organizations they work with and working outside the box in general.  Yes, they may also have a higher tendency to blame external rather than internal things for their problems, but having come to self-awareness post-9/11, can we really blame them?

In my work, I often encounter children, adolescents and young adults who are failing in school for a variety of reasons.  These “millennials” avoid attending, and often the blame is placed on excessive video game use.  They are seen to be escaping from reality, and although I can understand this perspective, it also puzzles me in some ways.  Video games would in many ways seem to me to be going from the frying pan into the fire:  They are rife with failure; in fact the statistic Jane McGonigal gives us is that people are failing 85% of the time in playing video games.  MMOs often require even more collaboration, sharing and critical thinking between individuals than classrooms in any given 30 minute period.

Millennials are often criticized as post-academic workers as well, for having less job loyalty, a need for constant feedback, and expecting that feedback to be praise.  In more affluent school districts I often heard their parents described as helicopter parents, who would email school minutes after receiving the report card to begin to debate the grades and exert pressure on educators to change them.  This has led to such grade inflation in my experience that my graduate school students are hurt and insulted when they get a B+ on a paper, sometimes to the point of tears.  I can’t remember a class I had in college where I wasn’t listening to a lecture, millennials are constantly asking for more small group work.  I’ve even had a call on occasion from a parent about their child’s performance.  Did I mention that I taught in graduate school?

From the above criticisms you’d think I was down on millennials, and you’d be dead wrong.  Because I think for the most part the millennials are happy, tolerant, and more likely to help others voluntarily than other generations, and the Pew Research on them bears this out.  And I think that a major reason for this is that they play video games.

The video games of today and the past decade have morphed from Pong and Space Invaders to Halo and World of Warcraft.  They have set up myriad game worlds where survival and thriving requires critical thinking, social collaboration, and lots of trial and error for mastery.  These games have also been played by over 90% of the millennial population, and I would suggest that the result is that millennials have been conditioned to be more collaborative, expect feedback to be quick and positive, and be more connected to others through technology.

Then we send them to school,  and it is frustrating for a majority of them, a majority of teachers, and a majority of parents.  Rather than encourage them to be “lifelong learners,” education as it is currently structured aims to produce a very narrow form of educated person, one that Sir Ken Robinson describes in his TED talk as an “academic professor.”  In addition, we all start to become impatient with millennials to adopt our own often individualistic notions of what adulthood is.  They need to stand on their own two feet, work without constant reassurance, and memorize things that they could just as easily Google.  All to get into the right college, and all to get a good job.

We criticize the millennials’ work ethic for many of the same reasons:  They won’t take individual responsibility for projects, they have trouble working independently, and they expect an award merely for being present.  They need to take things more seriously and get their nose to the grindstone, no one has time to hold their hand anymore.  These are all complaints I have heard levied against adolescents and young adults in my work, and the implicit message is that it is time to grow up.

One of the greatest things we can learn from millennials is something that I think they learned from video games, and that is how to destigmatize, and even enjoy, failure.  The epitome of this for me is the Heron’ The Greatest Spelling Bee Fail/Epic Win of All Time—which was posted on YouTube originally by the millennial who flubbed it.  This ability to have a sense of observing ego and humor about oneself is something many of us in psychotherapy work with our patients for years to achieve, and yet as a generation millennials seem to have grasped it more easily.

Part of my work with gamers is often to explore this paradox:  Why is it fun or okay to fail in video games so much, and so intolerable in work or school?  Sure, part of it is that play is a magic circle according to Huizinga, which is marked apart from real life.  But games impact the same brain, the same emotions that exists inside and out of that circle.  And if that is the case, there must be some transferable skills.  We work on how to destigmatize failure

Innovation requires lots of trial and error, and lots of failures.  As educator Lucas Gillispie said at a recent education conference in Second Life, it makes little sense to penalize so harshly when students get 69%.  Rather than see it as having acquired more than half the knowledge assessed, we make it a source of embarrassment and usually require they repeat the entire exercise, class, or grade.  Millennials have grown up with a split view of failure.  On the one hand, video games have helped them understand that failure can be fun, even if you’re failing 85% of the time.  On the other, they are put in educational environments where the A is everything, and the goal of learning is to get high marks rather than enjoy the creativity and critical thinking.   In fact, A’s are so limiting!  Why not focus on a high score which can always be improved upon in school?  If the best you can do is an A, then you have to resort to accumulating the most A’s possible, which is less intrinsically rewarding and dynamic.

Many detractors will say that millennials need to get with the existing program, that what I am suggesting is dumbing down a curriculum, or that I am being too Pollyanna and that some jobs just aren’t capable of being fun.  But for over a decade companies like IBM have found success modeling work environments on MMOs, and schools which institute dance classes notice higher math scores. And the solution to our economic and occupational troubles may not be the return of a “work ethic” or more job, but the creation of new types of schools and jobs, work we can’t even imagine yet because it hasn’t been innovated or invented.  Can you imagine some 14th century youth telling his farmer dad, “I don’t want to work on the farm.  I’d like to create and use something that applies pressure and ink to paper to make reading and writing something we can all do.”

It probably isn’t a coincidence that the word “epic” has become ubiquitous over the past several years, with so many millennials and others playing video games like World of Warcraft.  And it has come under fire by many of my colleagues, who maintain that in a culture where everything is Epic, nothing truly is.  I’m not saying that everything is Epic, but I am saying that there can be some Epic every day.  It’s what they call teachable moments, flow, success, even the Epic fail that we can laugh off with colleagues before redoubling our efforts to nail it next time.  What we’re really learning here is how to tolerate frustration.

Millennials know that “epic” is a superlative, they’re not devaluing the currency of that word.  If anything, I think that this is a sign that Buddhist thinking is becoming more integrated into the 21st century:  It is Epic that we are here alive in this moment, that we want and fear so much, and the struggles that ensure from those things. There are a lot of levels left to unlock and problems to be vanquished in the world, and we need to cultivate optimism and positive psychology at school and in the workplace, not stomp on it.

Millennials often have that sense that there can be some Epic every day.  Video games offer worlds where there can be some Epic every day, too.  Let’s start noticing it.

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!

Angry Birds, Advent, & the 12 Links of Christmas

You may be familiar with Angry Birds, one of the most popular smartphone games in the world. But did you know that they have a holiday season edition? They cover several world holidays, but by far my favorite is the Christmas version, which comes out early each December.

The reason I like it so much is that it is basically an Advent calendar. For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, advent calendars are holiday calendars used to help celebrate the anticipation of Christmas. There are usually 24 little doors or windows in the calendar, and each night you open one of the doors as you get closer to the 25th. Behind the door may be a picture, small piece of chocolate, part of a story, or something else.

Angry Birds Seasons allows you to play one game level per day leading up until Christmas. Whether you whiz through it or play for 2 hours, the next day’s level is locked until midnight. You’ll see a countdown page if you try to move forward, but that’s it.

Many spiritual traditions emphasize the celebration of small patient acts. Hanukkah uses the nightly lighting of the menorah and exchange of small gifts for 8 nights. Diwali has 6 nights of celebration in its festival of lights, and there are many more. And now we have the more secular tradition of Angry Birds.

I want to celebrate with you the idea of waiting and enjoying small things. I think we can enjoy anticipation, see the value in the smallest of gifts. And that those gifts can be as powerful as they are small.

So whatever your particular holiday tradition is, or isn’t, I hope you’ll accept this gift from me to you. I call them the Twelve Links of Christmas, but you can call them whatever you want. They’re hyperlinks (sorry Zelda fans) to 12 different activities and ideas. Some of them are video games you can try, others are gift ideas, some are videos of change. All of them engage you in some activity involving social justice.

Don’t open them all at once! Each day from now until the 25th, click on one link and try it out.

The Twelve Links

1. Darfur is Dying: Refugee Game for Change Play this game to learn more about the genocide in the Darfur region. One of my students played the game for 45 minutes before realizing that she had now spent more time learning about Darfur in one sitting than the totality of her life before.
2. Eli Pariser TED Talk: Beware online “filter bubbles” In this TED Talk, Eli Pariser helps us see how we are in danger of having our experiences and information filtered by emerging technologies, and warns us of the potential consequence of such searches mediating and filtering our understanding of the world.
3. True Colors It’s been two years since this performance was belted out by the LA Gay Men’s Chorus, but it is as moving as ever. Sung to the world, but also to every LGBT youth feeling isolated and hopeless, this resounding cry of comfort and encouragement is perhaps best summed up in the powerful vocals at 3:50: “So don’t be afraid..”
4. Foldit: Science Game for Health Learn about and play the game that contributed to HIV research in 10 days of gaming in ways that computer models had been trying to do for years. Foldit uses a video game to fold proteins, which aids in the search for cures of health issues such as Cancer and AIDS. Within minutes, anyone can begin playing the game and help!
5. Tropes Vs. Women #3: The Smurfette Principal This is one video from Anita Sarkeesian’s series, which offers a feminist perspective on the limited and limiting ways women are portrayed in popular culture. Anita’s more recent exploration of sexism and these tropes in video games sparked a hateful backlash from some, and may just have ushered in a new era of discussion and self-critique as gamers and game developers supported Sarkeesian and have begun working to make the days of such hate numbered.
6. Papo and Yo If you still have any doubt that video games can be both art and social commentary, this powerful trailer may convince you otherwise. This PS3 game offers a powerful exploration of childhood abuse, ethnicity, poverty and the power of the imagination to solve the puzzle trauma inflicts on the oppressed.
7. Ken Robinson Says Schools Kill Creativity Check out this TED talk, not just for its commentary on education in general, but as a meditation on how we could rethink learning disabilities, autism, and other differences in the human learning process.
8. Ethos and Seniors Flash Mob for Elder Abuse Awareness Day This year, senior citizens in my very own Massachusetts dropped into the local supermarket for a flash mob to raise awareness on elder abuse. Their choice of song was apt, and even a bit chilling. Check out the video and see if you can notice how many stereotypes of elders it helps debunk.
9. Heifer.org : Rethinking Gift-giving A perennial favorite of mine, the mission of Heifer is simple: “To work with communities to end hunger and poverty and care for the Earth.” This website will show you the way you can change the world this holiday season by giving a gift of sustainable food and agriculture to indigenous peoples all over the world. Much nicer than another soap on a rope.
10. I Am: Trans People Speak A brave and bold use of social media, this project is affiliated with the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition in partnership with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. It seeks to raise awareness about diversity within transgender communities, as well as empower individuals to create positive change in the media representations of trans people.
11. Food Force 2 Look, you’re on Facebook anyway, why not spend some time learning a bit about sustainability, community organizing and world hunger? This game, sponsored by the United Nations World Food Program, seeks to raise both awareness and money to solve real world food shortages. Since it is a video game on a social media platform, perhaps you can invite your friends to play too!
12. Give An Hour: Psychotherapists Supporting Veterans Got a spare 50 hours? Of course not. Okay, how about 10 minutes to check this video out. In it my colleague Barbara Van Dahlen discusses how she founded Give An Hour, an organization that connects returning veterans with psychotherapists who have volunteered to donate an hour a week of free therapy. After you listen to some of the soldier’s stories, you may find yourself inspired to make room for that hour a week in your practice. I have since 2006, and I recommend it highly.

If you’ve checked out the link before, maybe there is someone important to you you could send it to? Maybe you haven’t shared it with your child? Maybe someone else who you know will be alone for the holidays, or someone you’ve been meaning to reconnect with and can’t quite figure out how to do it?

I hope you find these links as rewarding and enriching as I have. Please accept them as my thank you for reading the blog this year. Please take them as an invitation to change the world. Because that is what social justice is, isn’t it?

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Avatars & The Curated Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Taking An Interest

 

This week I was at the dentist, and the appointment probably took twice as long as it was supposed to.  This was because as I was waiting in the dentist chair, I was playing Denki Blocks on my iPhone when the assstant came in.  She found the game interesting, and confessed to me that she didn’t know how to download games on her new iPhone.  And as I was explaining how to do that, the dentist came in and he talked about how his children weren’t allowed to play games on the iPhone because they discouraged socializing.  So then of course I explained that there was research that suggested very differently.  He listened quietly and I said, “maybe I shouldn’t be arguing with someone who is about to put a drill in my mouth.”

“No, no,” he said.  “It’s just that I’m thinking about what you said, and I haven’t thought about it that way before.”  All three of us had an ongoing conversation between all the stages of filling a cavitiy, about smartphones, digital literacy, gaming.  And at the end of it I noted how clearly this is a topic for our times if all of us can be talking and listening intently about it for such a long period of time.

In college, one of my creative writing teachers once said, “What interests you is interesting.”  I think there is a lot of truth in this in general, and specifically when it comes to psychotherapy and running a business.  I feel extremely fortunate to be in a portfolio career that allows me to pursue my interests and take an interest in the psyche and society.  Not everybody has an easy or clear path to this in our society.  Some self-help gurus make it sound like all you need is a burning interest to become the happy and successful, which is absolutely not true.  There are millions of talented people out there that start off with less privilege and opportunity, and more stressors due to race, gender, poverty, or living in an ableist culture.  But what I do think my professor was on to was the idea that often what interests you can be a strong motivator to yourself and exciting to others.

A supervisee and I recently were discussing the possible meanings and messages that could be conveyed in leaving a voicemail for a patient.  After discussing this for 30 minutes, I interjected by saying, “Can I just take a step back and point out what a weird profession we’re in that we can spend so much time talking about this?”  We both laughed at this, and it was true, but the time had gone by so fast because we were mutually interested in the subject.

Enthusiasm, in its original meaning, was taken from the Greek enthousiasmos, which came from enthousiazein, to be possessed from within by a spirit or god.  That sense of a powerful force from within that can fill one with energy and ideas and lose track of time is at work in all of the stories above.  It is not the only ingredient to having a successful business, but I believe it is an essential one.  We need to be able to geek out about what we do, to go on at length about it.  Hopefully we can do so in an engaging way, but we need to be able to lose a bit of self-consciousness to be able to focus properly on our patients, our work, and our business.

Frequently I consult with therapists who come to me because they want to grow their practice.  A few of them say that, but what they really mean is that they want to make more money and work less.  That is not in itself a bad thing, but for some it is an attempt at compromise.  For they have grown tired or disinterested in what they are doing.  They feel trapped in their work, not interested in it.  They are afraid that they are too old to change, or don’t have anything else they can do.  Some dream about a time they’ll retire and write a novel.  But for now they are consigned to sit silently and voicelessly in their office.  They grow bored and resentful of their patients, who if they are lucky, escape.  This vicious cycle can go on for years.

The same holds for supervision.  I have heard from a lot of supervisees about supervisions where it’s all about the paperwork, or the liability, or the billable hours.  I’ve heard supervisors lament how they don’t have time to focus on talking about the dynamics of therapies, as if that was “extra” stuff!  My experience is that these comments are voiced midway or at the end of a progression towards burnout.  First the supervisor feels overwhelmed by the “musts” of paperwork and filing 51As, and then the supervision shifts to only being about those.  Next, the supervision gets defined as merely being about that, so that the supervisee sees the supervisor rushing down the hall or on the phone, pausing to ask, “Anything we need to talk about?”  If there is no crisis the student feels pressured and becomes trained to say no, there isn’t.  And now that supervision is only about crises and paperwork, it becomes something everyone wants to avoid because it is boring, lifeless.  There is no enthusiasm.

I would suggest this is ultimately a setup for malpractice.  Supervisees trust supervisors who seem interested in them.  Over and over I have heard that supervisees have a hard time connecting or trusting supervisors who are “just business,” or cheerleaders.  Yes, supervisees don’t want a supervisor who lets them talk for an hour and then says, “sounds like you handled that well.”  This bears saying, because sometimes we unconsciously or consciously try to substitute affirmation for engagement and interest.  If you’re a supervisor, don’t do it, because your supervisees can smell it a mile away.  If you’re vacant, they know it.  If you are filled with the spirit of interest, they know that as well.

I’ve had colleagues tell me how clever I am to have found the niche I have, which drives me crazy frankly.  I didn’t choose to focus on technology, gaming and social media in therapy because I saw a vacuum.  I was just lucky that there was one.  I chose these areas of specialty because I am a total geek about them.  I could play or talk about video games for hours.  I can’t talk about Twitter or Google+ without getting animated.  I see their influence everywhere, read vociferously about them on my “free” time.  I wrote a book about it which I charge $2.99 for.  When asked to teach a class on clinical practice I declined, and said, “No, but I’ll write a syllabus and teach a class for social work and technology.”  Any of you who have taught at the graduate level know that teaching from a pre-existing syllabus is easier and less time-consuming than writing and proposing a pilot course.  But I was enthusiastic about the topic, which fueled my work ethic.  And this has set up a virtuous cycle, where I get more recommendations for reading or TED Talks than I can handle, and referrals to work with those patients.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope someday to become famous or rich, but it is more likely that I will make a decent living and have a modest reputation.  Because as I said there are thousands, no millions of people out there who have talents and interests to share with the world.  I’m just grateful I got lucky enough to be one of the ones who got the chance to do it.

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What Back to School Could Mean

This past week, over 70 million students from Pre-K to PhD went back to school in the United States.  Of those, an estimated 1 million students are homeless, an all-time high.  And this past week, many of us went back to school ourselves to teach these folks.  Maybe you have a adjunct position, or maybe you are supervising an intern, or maybe you are a school counselor or work at a university health service.

It has never seemed more urgent to me then now that we help people get the educations they desire and work toward.  Our country has been struggling immensely over the past several years with fiscal crashes, growing gaps between the upper, middle and working classes, and the sense of hopelessness and pessimism that accompany them.  When 1 million children are homeless in one of the 10 richest countries in the world, there is a lot of change needed.

Education should be fueled by optimism even though it always begins in failure.  By that I mean that we start off by not knowing stuff, and hoping to change that.  If we all knew how to read, write and think critically innately, we’d never need to go to school.  We begin not-knowing, but, and this is what is amazing, hard-wired to learn things.  We are wired to attach to caregivers, acquire language, and make meaning of the world.  And we all have the ability to have ideas.

Recently there has been a lot of useful commentary on how we need to get better at failing, in order to be able to innovate.  That is true, and it is only half the story.  To be able to innovate, we need to be willing to risk and tolerate failure, true.  But just as importantly, we need to allow for the possibility that we could contribute something important and transformative to the world as well.

Recently I was talking with a group of my graduate students, and I asked them to be honest with me and raise their hand if they thought they could get an A in my class.  I was heartened to see that 3/4 of class raised their hands.  Then I said, “Now raise your hand if you believe that you could have an idea in this class that could change the world.”

One student raised their hand.  It was a poignant moment for me, and I suspect many of them.

What has happened to our educational system and values that we teach people to expect they can get an A, but not come up with an idea that can change the world?

I do not fault the students at ALL for this, because I think they have been taught this pessimism by our system.  SATs and standardized tests are the ways we grant access to more educational privilege in the U.S., but numbers don’t allow for the reality that everyone has the ability to ideate, to come up with a new thought that could change the world in small and large ways.  And students are given or not given financial support based on numbers, which at best only indicate potential, the potential in many ways to know what has already been known, rather than the ability to discover the unknown.  These numbers become a driving concern to parents and children, to teachers and students 0f all ages.

Many of the students you are working with are starting the year feeling defeated already.  I remember a talk I gave a while back to students on academic probation at a community college, in the last chance class they had to pass in order to continue.  Every one of them played and enjoyed some sort of video game, and I asked them why they were willing to try and fail repeatedly with video games when they were having such reluctance to try and fail at school?

One student raised his hand and answered, “because with a video game, I might win.”

What a damning indictment of the educational environment we are shaping people’s hearts and minds in.  And yet, by the end of that class every one of the students had spoken, had put forth an idea of their own which brought us as a group further.

Recently, I have been playing a new MMO called Guild Wars 2 and I am finding it very timely for the back to school season.  Although I have played WoW for years and have leveled characters up to 85 there, suddenly I find myself thrown into a new world.  There is a completely unexplored map, a new economy to master, the game mechanics and character classes just different enough to make my keyboard skills rusty.  I didn’t have a clue what was going on until I hit level 5 or 6, when suddenly I began to “get it.”  The big question I have for you is, what kept me going to level 5?

I suspect the answer is that video games like GW2 create an optimistic world, where the possibility of success and creating something new is a distinct one.  I kept trying in places where I got stuck because I knew both that failure was a possibility but so was success.  I also had the opportunity to play the beta version, where we were always being asked by the game designers for our impressions and ideas.  Many of these ideas have been incorporated into the later iterations of games like GW2, WoW, and Minecraft.  These ideas have literally changed the worlds of these games.

What if we looked at our classrooms and studies more like a beta test?  What if we allowed for the possibility that each of us, any of us, could have an idea that changes the world?  What kind of learning and character building would that environment produce?

I highly doubt that if aliens were to visit our planet thousands of years from now that they would be impressed with anyone’s GPA.  I doubt that they’d sift through the ashes of a civilization to see its test results.  They might note the high levels of anxiety and rhetoric in the 21st century speeches on education reform though.

If you are a student reading this I hope you will take this to heart:  I believe that you are capable of coming up with an idea that could change the world.  If you are a teacher I hope you’ll fight to keep your classroom a laboratory of innovation or a beta test rather than crank out widgets of standardized educational achievement.  If you are a therapist I hope you will help support your patients and their families to maintain a sense of their capability and optimism.  If you are a parent I hope you will remember that your children’s willingness to take risks and find interests in the world may not always match your own or the status quo and that that is a good thing.

Someone, many someones, somewhere, many somewheres out there, a world-changing idea is about to happen.  Let’s not miss it.

 

If you’re a therapist looking to join a group of innovative colleagues for supervision, you may want to take advantage of this.  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!