Using Gaming & Gamification in Clinical Practice

What does “gamification” mean, and what is its relevance to mental health practice?  In this video of a conversation I had at University at Buffalo with Charles Syms, I take a stab at answering those questions.  This is just a start, and hopefully by the end of the video you can begin to see how applying principles of game design could be therapeutic for people dealing with issues ranging from trauma to executive functioning challenges to substance abuse and beyond.

 

 

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Gamer-Affirmative Practice: Today’s Play Therapy

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The importance of play is universal, and in many ways the nature of play is timeless.  That said, there is a lot to learn about video games as 21st-century play, especially if you are a play therapist.  Adding 21st-century forms of play to your repertoire can be daunting.  With so many naysayers in the mental health profession, avoidance of learning the new takes the form of contempt prior to investigation.  With video games being low-hanging fruit for political arguments ranging from gun control to teen bullying, many social workers, psychologists and counselors give in to the media hype and spend far more time demonizing or ignoring this form of play than they do understanding it.

Recently my colleagues at the University at Buffalo made it a point to take a gamer-affirmative stance and offer a beginning piece of continuing education on integrating video games as play therapy in the form of a podcast.  In it my friend, colleague, and yes, fellow video game player Anthony Guzman and I have a beginning conversation about just that.  Have a listen:

inSocialWork® Episode 144 – Michael Langlois: Gamer-Affirmative Practice: Today’s Play Therapy

 

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

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

 

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No Matter How You Feel, You Still Failed

Game_Over

Psychotherapists are often people who prefer to deal with feelings in their workings with people.  Feelings are important, and being empathically attuned to how patients are feeling is equally important.  We are taught to explore the patient’s feelings, imagine ourselves into their lived experience, and validate that experience.

This is often where we become disconnected from other professionals we collaborate with, such as educators.  Be it Pre-K or graduate school, educators are charged with working with students to learn and grow as a whole person.  It’s not that they aren’t concerned with feelings, they just can’t get hung up on them to the exclusion of everything else.

To be fair, psychotherapy has a long history of taking a broader view on the individual as well.  A famous psychoanalyst, Winnicott, once responded to a patient of his who was expressing feelings of hopelessness by saying something to the effect of “sometimes when I am sitting with you I feel hopeless too, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of continuing to work with you.”

But often in the past decade or two, feelings have held sway over everything.  Students don’t complete their assignments because they felt overwhelmed and still expect to pass the course.  Adults feel emotionally exhausted and miss work or are late to it.  Children feel angry at the injustice of chores and don’t do them but still want their allowance.

A criticism I often hear toward video games is that they encourage people to believe that they can always just reset, do over and have another shot.  But implicit in this criticism is the fact of something I feel video games actually do better than many of us sometimes:  They acknowledge the reality of failure.

When we play video games, we are failing 80% of the time.  Failing in the sense of Merriam Webster’s definitions including:

  • to not succeed : to end without success
  • to not do (something that you should do or are expected to do)
  • to fall short <failed in his duty>
  • to be or become absent or inadequate
  • to be unsuccessful

In video games the reality of this is driven home to us by a screenshot:

minecraft71

 

 

warcraft

 

 

pac man

 

You can feel any way you’d like about it, angry, sad, annoyed, blase, frustrated with a touch of determination.  But no matter how you feel you still failed.

In life outside games, many of us have a hard time accepting the reality principle when it comes to failing at something.  We think we can talk, think, or feel our way out of failing to meet expectations.  My own predilection is that of a thinker, which is probably why I became a psychodynamic psychotherapist and educator.  I often waste a lot of time trying to think (or argue) myself into a new reality, which just boils down to not accepting the reality principle.  I notice the same with patients, colleagues and students, who miss deadlines, avoid work, come late to class and then try their best to think or feel their way out of it.

The first class each semester I tell my students, who are studying to be social workers and psychotherapists, that the most frequent complaint I get as an instructor is “I feel put on the spot by him.”  I assure them that this is a valid feeling and actually reflects the reality that I will put each and every one of them on the spot.  I will ask them tough questions, I will point out that they are coming late to class, I will disagree with ideas that seem erroneous to me.  Because if they think it is ok to be late or avoid thinking through a problem or confrontation in class, how in the world will they ever be a decent psychotherapist or social worker?  If the single mother you are working with wants to know how to apply for WIC, and you say you feel put on the spot by her question, that is a valid feeling AND you are useless to her.  If your therapist was 15 minutes late every week I hope you’d fire him.  And when you are conducting a family session and someone discloses abuse it is unprofessional to say “I’m feeling overwhelmed and sad right now, can you ask somebody else to go next?”

These sort of disconnects doesn’t happen overnight.  It comes from years of being enabled by well-intentioned parents and yes, mental health providers who focus on feelings to the exclusion of cognition and behavior, and worse, try to ensure that their children grow to adulthood feeling a constant sense of success.  When I hear self psychology-oriented folks talk it is almost always about mirroring and idealizing, and never about optimal frustration.  And I suspect that this is because we have become so focused on feelings and success that we are preventing people from experiencing optimal frustration at all.

The novelist John Hersey has said “Learning starts with failure; the first failure is the beginning of education.”  We commence to learn because reality has shown us that we lack knowledge or understanding.  That’s the good news.  We’ve woken up!  In this light I regard video games as one of the most consistent learning tools available to us.  When that fail happens and that screen goes up you can try to persuade it to cut you some slack, flatter or bully it, weep pleadingly for it to change to a win, but no matter how you feel, you still failed.  And because that reality is so starkly there, and because the XBox or PS3/4 doesn’t get engaged in your drama, that feeling will eventually dissipate and you will either try again, or give up.

Because that is in a lot of ways the conflict we’re trying to avoid isn’t it?  We want to avoid looking reality square in the face and taking responsibility for what comes next.  We want to keep the feelings flowing, the drama going, and we are willing to take entire groups of people and systems with us.  If we are lucky they put their feet down, but more often then not they want to avoid conflict too, and the problem just continues.

So here’s a confession:  I have failed at things.  I have ended a task without success.  I have not done things I was expected to do.  I have fallen short, been inadequate and been unsuccessful at stuff.  And nobody took away my birthday.  I’m still around doing other things, often iterations of the previous failures, quite successfully.

If you are a parent or educator please take a lesson from video games.  Start saying “Game Over” to those in your care sometimes.  If they can try again great.  If they want to read up on some strategy guides or videos to learn how to do it better, awesome.  But please stop capitulating to their desire to escape reality on the illusory lifeboats of emotional expression, rationalization or verbal arguments.  As Mrs. Smeal says in “Benny and Joon,” “when a boat runs ashore, the sea has spoken.”  Reality testing is probably the most important ego function you can help someone develop, please don’t avoid opportunities to do so.

Nobody likes to experience failure, I know it feels awful.  But to move through it to new realizations can be very liberating, and in time become more easily bearable.  And I truly believe that success without past failures feels pretty hollow.  When I play through a video game from start to finish without a fail I don’t feel like a winner.  I feel cheated.

 

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Reality Testing & The 7 Billion Rule

In this video, I discuss the ego function of reality testing, how it affects us, and ways to cope with distortions in it.  This is also another example of how I use technology, in particular YouTube as a transitional object for patients, allowing them to continue to remember our work together without compromising any of their personal health information.

This will be the last post for 2013, have a good end of the year and I’ll see you sometime in late January!

 

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Selfie Esteem

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Joanna Pappas, Epic MSW Student

Joanna Pappas, Epic MSW Student

 

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

 

Jonathan Singer, Assistant Professor, Temple University

Jonathan Singer, Assistant Professor, Temple University

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Mike Langlois, PvZ Afficianado

Mike Langlois, PvZ Afficianado

 

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

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

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

 

looting

 

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

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

As their therapist I’d even have some questions:

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

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

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

 

Melanie Sage, Assistant Professor, University of North Dakota

Melanie Sage, Assistant Professor, University of North Dakota

 

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

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

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The Changing Landscape of Social Work

TrekWorld_Nicholas-Roerich_Kanchendzonga-1944

Recently I had the great opportunity to be a scholar-in-residence at The University at Buffalo’s School of Social Work.  For three days I met with students, faculty and staff to speak about emerging technologies ranging from Twitter to video games.  During one morning, Dean Nancy Smyth and I sat down for a series of informal discussions around various topics, and the University was kind enough to let me share these videos with you.  If you want to learn more about how I can come to your institution to do the same thing, please contact me.

How to Use Social Media and Technology to Develop a Personal Learning Network:

 

 

If I Don’t Use Social Media and Technology in Social Work Practice What Am I Missing?

 

 

Social Work is Changing:  Integrating Social Media and Technology Into Social Work Practice

 

 

 

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

lightbulb

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

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

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

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

I don’t care about grade inflation.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Dopey About Dopamine: Video Games, Drugs, & Addiction

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

Last week I was speaking to a colleague whose partner is a gamer. She was telling me about their visit to his mother. During the visit my colleague was speaking to his mother about how much he still enjoys playing video games. His mother expressed how concerned she had been about his playing when he was young. “It could have been worse though,” she’d said, “at least he wasn’t into drugs.”

This comparison is reminiscent of the homophobic one where the tolerant person says, “I don’t mind if you’re gay, as long as you don’t come home with a goat.” The “distinction” made actually implies that the two things are comparable. But in fact they are not.

Our culture uses the word addiction pretty frequently and casually. And gamers and opponents of gaming alike use it in reference to playing video games. Frequently we hear the comments “gaming is like a drug,” or “video games are addictive,” or “I’m addicted to Halo 3.” What muddies the waters further are the dozens of articles that talk about “proof” that video games are addictive, that they cause real changes in the brain, changes just like drugs.

We live in a positivistic age, where something is “real” if it can be shown to be biological in nature. I could argue that biology is only one way of looking at the world, but for a change I thought I’d encourage us to take a look at the idea of gaming as addictive from the point of view of biology, specifically dopamine levels in the brain.

Dopamine levels are associated with the reward center of the brain, and the heightened sense of pleasure that characterizes rewarding experiences. When we experience something pleasurable, our dopamine levels increase. It’s nature’s way of reinforcing behaviors that are often necessary for survival.

One of the frequent pieces of evidence to support video game addiction is studies like this one by Koepp et al, which was done in 1998. It monitored changes in dopamine levels from subjects who were playing a video game. The study noted that dopamine levels increased during game play “at least twofold.” Since then literature reviews and articles with an anti-gaming bias frequently and rightly state that video games can cause dopamine levels to “double” or significantly increase.

They’re absolutely right, video games have been shown to increase dopamine levels by 100% (aka doubling.)

Just like studies have shown that food and sex increase dopamine levels:

This graph shows that eating food often doubles the level of dopamine in the brain, ranging from a spike of 50% to a spike of 100% an hour after eating. Sex is even more noticeable, in that it increases dopamine levels in the brain by 200%.

So, yes, playing video games increases dopamine levels in your brain, just like eating and having sex do, albeit less. But just because something changes your dopamine levels doesn’t mean it is addictive. In fact, we’d be in big trouble if we never had increases in our dopamine levels. Why eat or reproduce when it is just as pleasurable to lie on the rock and bask in the sun?

But here’s the other thing that gets lost in the spin. Not all dopamine level increases are created equal. Let’s take a look at another chart, from the Meth Inside-Out Public Media Service Kit:

This is a case where a picture is worth a thousand words. When we read that something “doubles” it certainly sounds intense, or severe. But an increase of 100% seems rather paltry compare to 350% (cocaine) or 1200% (Meth)!

One last chart for you, again from the NIDA. This one shows the dopamine increases (the pink line) in amphetamine, cocaine, nicotine and morphine:

Of all of these, the drug morphine comes closest to a relatively “low” increase of 100%.

So my point here is twofold:

1. Lots of things, not all or most of them drugs, increase the levels of dopamine.

2. Drugs have a much more marked, sudden, and intense increase in dopamine level increase compared to video games.

Does this mean that people can’t have problem usage of video games? No. But what it does mean, in my opinion, is that we have to stop treating behaviors as if they were controlled substances. Playing video games, watching television, eating, and having sex are behaviors that can all be problematic in certain times and certain contexts. But they are not the same as ingesting drugs, they don’t cause the same level of chemical change in the brain.

And we need to acknowledge that there is a confusion of tongues where the word addiction is involved. Using it in a clinical sense is different than in a lay sense– saying “I’m hooked on meth” is not the same as saying “I’m hooked on phonics.” Therapists and gamers alike need to be more mindful of what they are saying and meaning when they say they are addicted to video games. Do they mean it is a psychological illness, a medical phenomenon? Do they mean they can’t get enough of them, or that they like them a whole lot? Do they mean it is a problem in their life, or are they parroting what someone else has said to them?

I don’t want to oversimplify addiction by reducing it to dopamine level increase. Even in the above discussion I have oversimplified these pieces of “data.” There are several factors, such as time after drug, that we didn’t compare. And there are several other changes in brain chemistry that contribute to rewarding behavior and where it goes awry. I just want to show an example of how research can be cited and misused to distort things. The study we started out with simply found that we can measure changes in brain chemistry which occur when we do certain activities. It was not designed or intended to be proof that video games are dangerous or addictive.

Saying that something changes your brain chemistry shouldn’t become the new morality. Lots of things change your brain chemistry. But as Loretta Laroche says, “a wet towel on the bed is not the same as a mugging.” We need to keep it complicated and not throw words around like “addiction” and “drug” because we want people to take us seriously or agree with us. That isn’t scientific inquiry. That’s hysteria.

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