Better Living Through Minecraft

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Last month I had the opportunity to talk at SXSW 2015 about how the video game Minecraft has a lot to teach us about mindfulness.  Video games often get a bad rap with mental health folks, but I try to change that thinking by pointing out that playing video games can actually be a form of concentration meditation, albeit one that does not jibe with many people’s traditional concepts of such (focus on your breathing, focus on the candle, focus on..erm, Mario?)  If you want to hear more, the Audio is here:

https://soundcloud.com/michael-langlois-6/better-living-through-minecraft-audio-version

If you want to see the visuals from the Prezi, feel free to do so here:

If you enjoy it, please feel free to share, and if you want me to come talk to you and your colleagues drop me a note.

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The Internet & Real Relationships

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Today I was slicing some lemons for shish kabobs and so not surprisingly I began to think about social media, attachment and what constitutes an authentic relationship.

Authenticity was a key term when I was becoming a therapist in the mid nineties, and society in general.  Today, most people I have spoken to in the mental health profession would say our happiness in part depends on having authentic relationships with others.  Setting aside for a moment that we often talk about “authenticity” as if there is one monolithic thing that “everyone knows” it is, this belief in the connection between authentic relationships and happiness often gives psychotherapists, social workers and educators their moral imperative to discourage use of technology.  That’s where the lemons come in.

Ten years ago, I met my friend Jackie Dotson on the bulletin boards of Psychology Today.  These bulletin boards were designed for clinicians to have an online forum where they could discuss a range of issues, make referrals, and share ideas.  They were also a place where early-adopting clinicians stumbled and experimented, behaved badly, gossiped and misspoke, as we tried to make sense of emerging technologies.  I remember heated online conversations about whether the forums were private and “safe,” where people were startled to consider that anyone could cut and paste your confidential posts anywhere on the web.  People were emboldened or perhaps I should say “emoboldened” by the relative anonymity on the forum to say things that could be breathtaking in both their vulnerability and/or sadism.  It was the Wild West of mental health on the web.

My interactions with Jackie were few and far between when she and I were both active there.  It wasn’t until I moved on from the forums to spending more time on Facebook that I think we really began socializing more.  Perhaps it was because FB allowed for a flow of text and images, more seamless interaction, and chat.  Whatever the reason, over the past few years my life has intersected with Jackie more and more.  We have several mutual acquaintances from the PT forums, and a mutual friend with whom I went to college with.  I’m glad I friended her.

From 3,000 miles away, Jackie has crept into my online and emotional life with the secret code of affinity that could only be shared via social media.  We share a love of bone marrow as evidenced by our food pics, and she has forced me to rethink my stance in social media workshops I do where I used to announce to my audience, “Nobody wants to see your food.”  Our dark wit and banter is present more days than not in my FB feeds, I’ve even taken more of an interest in my local sports teams so I can insult hers.  In return she pretends to be a bigot on LGBT issues to bait me.  Although I’ve never told her explicitly, she has reassured me when I worried about how my picture looks online, and comforted me when my city suffered a terrorist attack.

And then last year she started sending me lemons.  Real lemons.

Jackie lives in CA, and has at least one prolific lemon tree.  Last year she offered to mail a box of them to anyone of her friends on Facebook for the price of shipping.  I jumped at the chance.  They arrived within days and were enjoyed by my family immensely.  So immensely, that when Jackie began posting pictures of budding trees this year, I grew quite impatient for them.  They arrived two weeks ago, and for the past two Sundays I have used them for cooking.  As I write this, there are chicken kabobs marinating in lemon and thyme for tonight.

Jackie and I have never sat down together for a heart to heart or face to face conversation, but we carry our connection to each other throughout our day with our smartphones.  In the decade that we have been in each others’ orbits, I suspect we have each known deep sadnesses that we haven’t spoken of to each other.  Yet I am convinced that if I ever chose to reach out to her that way it would be okay and vice verse.  Not all intimacy needs to be acted on.

That said, for two Sundays, as I have chopped and squeezed fresh lemons, I have thought of Jackie and smiled.  I have imagined her and our conversations as I move through my kitchen, while my brain alters levels of different neurochemicals and changes my affective state in ways that are real and comforting to me.

The stubborn adherence to imagining that technological use inherently diminishes our authenticity has been eroding the mental health field’s relationship with the people we work with for decades now.  Friends and colleagues of mine in the tech industry are consistently amazed that I still need to educate and advocate with my peers about this.  Our profession continues to act as if relationship mediated by emerging technologies is one step removed from other relationships, less authentic because we use our bodies in different ways to achieve connection with each other.  I wonder if our dogs feel that we are less authentic because we have replaced smelling butts with eye contact and uttering sounds all the time?

I jest, in part because I doubt our companion animals feels as fearful of becoming irrelevant as many of my colleagues do.  I think this fear is only justified to the extent that we are dogmatic about what constitute authenticity for everyone.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said:

Love is the only force which can make things one without destroying them. … Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness.. the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

I do not think it is the role of the therapist to be the arbiter of truth in what makes intimacy or authentic relationships.  Our role is to help our patients explore their capacity and harness their energies for love in ways that may go beyond the imagination our own experience affords us.  It is not for us to give them fire as gods would, but to help them make themselves whole without destroying them.

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The Lava Expert

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“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”  –The Imitation Game

Shortly before I fell into the lava I began a conversation with an eleven year old girl, we’ll call her Sal.  This was a while back, on a Minecraft server I play on from time to time.  My name when I play Minecraft has the word “therapist” in it, and Sal had noticed this.

“Hey, are you really a therapist?” Sal asked via our server text chat.

“Yes I am.”  I typed back.  I had been mining obsidian and using a river to cool the lava so I could chip away at it with my diamond pickaxe.  In the time it took to type my reply, I managed to fall into the river and get washed into the lava.  I watched myself go up in flames, and with me most of my loot.  There is always a chance though, when one falls into lava this way, that some of one’s loot can be thrown clear.  So upon respawning I quickly made my way back to the scene of my demise as we continued our conversation.

“Oops, burned up,” Sal said, as the server had announced just that when I fell in the lava.  “Are you the kind of therapist that talks to kids about their problems?”

“Kids and adults both, yes.”

“My mother wants me to see a therapist,” Sal said.

“Why?” asked another one of the kids on the server.

“She says I have problems with friends,” Sal said.  By this point I had returned to the lava pool.  There was no loot that had survived.

“Sal,” I said.  “Everyone needs help with their problems from time to time.  That’s why there are 7 billion people on the planet, to help each other out.”

For some reason that made quite an impact with the other players.  “Wow, you must be an expert!!” one typed.  I’m not sure how he’d come to that conclusion.

“I’m certainly not an expert on lava,” I replied, and fortunately the conversation went back to the business of mining after some sympathetic emoticons.

I have no problem talking with kids about therapy, or being a psychotherapist.  If I did, I certainly wouldn’t have the word in my userid.  And it wasn’t even that I was “off duty.”  I’ve had many conversations in chats over the years and heard a range of problems.  In part I was a little protective of Sal’s right to privacy, although experience has again shown me that kids are often less hung up on therapy than adults, and in many ways are often more trusting of psychotherapy than adults are.  Mostly the reason I wanted us all to get back to playing was that I had caught myself sounding “educational.”

*  *  *  *  *

In play if there is any such thing as an expert it is certainly not the therapist, or adults in general.  Virginia Axline, knew this.  In her book Play Therapy she writes, “Non-directive therapy is based upon the assumption that the individual has within himself…  the ability to solve his own problems satisfactorily.”  (Axline, 1947)  My trainees are often as surprised to find that I am friend to both psychodynamic and solution-focused theories as I am to find that they have been taught the two have irreconcilable differences.

As I see it, my job is often to be a unique experience in the lives of patients.  “It is a unique experience,” Axline writes, “for a child to find adult suggestions, mandates, rebukes, restraints, criticisms, disapprovals, support, intrusions gone.” (Axline, 1947)  And by the time people come to us as adolescents or adults, those suggestions, mandates, rebukes, restraints, criticisms, disapprovals, etc. have become internalized.  By adulthood, many of us feel as if we lack expertise in anything, except perhaps screwing our lives up.

Education has increasingly played a hand in this.  We do not teach so that our students learn to think independently and feel resourcefully.  Instead we teach them to think like someone else.  Critical thinking and exploration become supplanted by the sense that education has to give us something tangible in a materialistic sense:  A good grade; a profitable job; published ideas or maybe if we really drink the Koolaid admiration from other academics.

One thing that is so enjoyable about Minecraft for many is its’ open sandbox environment.  There is an endgame you can play if you want, but there are also myriad variations of play you can do instead.  Sal and millions of other children and adults can range freely through such open and creative spaces without “experts.”  Education certainly can happen there, but often in a lightly curated if not autodidactive way.  People have created versions of Westeros, Middle-Earth, Panem or their own creations.  There are PvP versions where conflict and combat, stealth and griefing hold sway; fantasy realms where people can role-play.  It is a topsy-turvy world where children can have the most wisdom, and we adult experts can trip and fall into lava.

*  *  *  *  *

In a world obsessed with measuring outcomes, psychotherapy can have a rough time of it.  If Sal ever goes to therapy, she will have to be labeled as ill somehow if her mother wants insurance to help pay for it.  Notes will have to be written, treatment plans planned, goals and objectives filed away so bean-counters can determine that Sal should get 14 beans-worth of help.  It’s hard for me to get too angry at the bean-counters though, over the past 25 years I’ve met a few of them and they don’t seem too happy either.

Education fares little better, with things like the Common Core which tells us what should be taught; standardized testing which masquerades as achievement; and trigger warnings which are supposed to warn students of upsetting content as if they somehow were entitled to get through the mind-altering experience of learning without ever being upset.

It takes bravery to stand up to this.  To let the individual chart their own course, make their own mistakes, draw on their own core.  For the therapist and educator it takes bravery to get out of the way, to radically reflect the developing self.  I do believe that each one of us needs help throughout our lives; but that help needs to be asked for lest we run the risk of telling others what to do and implying they aren’t up to the task of living their own lives.

*  *  *  *  *

Many therapists, social workers, and teachers I have met chose to become members of those professions at least in part as an expression of admiration for their own therapists, social workers and teachers.  They had no interest in falling into the lava ever again, so they started focusing on helping other people out.  It’s a thankless job if you are going to go through it secretly hoping to be thanked.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had someone I work with refer to me as an “expert” unless they were being facetious about some blunder I’d just made.  And I’ve made many.  As an apotheosis, being a psychotherapist or academic is rather anticlimactic, not because the work is devoid of meaning or value, but rather because if we truly place such people on a divine pedestal it needs a steady stream of troubled people to hold it steady.

Perhaps an alternative for therapists, social workers, educators and our ilk is to think of ourselves as “lava experts.”  We have some acquaintance with falling into pits, being consumed by intense feelings, losing all our, erm, loot.  These are human experiences.  This is not a secret to anyone, and I doubt most people would put their trust in someone who knows nothing of failure, obsession, overwhelm or grief.

What’s more is we’ve fallen into lava, often the same pit again and again!  We know something of the repetition compulsion.  We have let our yearning for whatever we think we need lead us to risky or self-defeating behaviors.  We can talk to people about their problems, because we are people who have problems ourselves.  We’ve been burned.  Minecraft miners know mining deep is risky:  We know what we’re doing even up to that moment our bones ignite.

Rather than being an expert on a pedestal, accept that you will tumble into fire, again and again, looking outside of yourself for what is precious.  Straight A’s, that book you published, six or seven figures–There’s a little Gollum in all of us.  It’s what makes us forget mindfulness, build empires, win arguments or wars.  No one was ever oppressed by play, only the lack of imagination that comes from the absence of it.

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Using Gaming & Gamification in Clinical Practice

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

 

 

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Gamer-Affirmative Practice: Today’s Play Therapy

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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The Relationship Between Emerging Technology & Psychodynamic Theory

Often when I present, people are surprised that I teach on both emerging technologies such as social media and video games, and classic psychodynamic theories.  Although it may initially seem counterintuitive, especially to classically trained psychotherapists and social workers, I see a strong connection between the two.  Here is the first in a series of posts featuring work I am doing with the University at Buffalo, in which Charles Syms and I discuss the relationship between the two.

 

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Social Justice & Technology Revisited

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I have written before about how technology often makes life easier for a large number of the population while simultaneously disenfranchising others.  The good news is that this does not have to be the case.

The example I used in the past was the Starbucks App which allows customers to use, gain rewards for, and reload their account on their smartphone, while making it more cumbersome and difficult to tip baristas.  This again does not have to be an inevitability, but requires Starbucks to enhance the functionality of its App.

So I was pleased to discover (special thanks to my student Marissa for bringing this to my attention) this week that come Wednesday March 19th, Starbucks will be rolling out an update to their smartphone App which allows just that.  You can read more about it at Forbes here.  You will be able to download the update from places like iTunes, and include your tip easily.

While some may dismiss this as a first-world problem, I cannot emphasize how powerful a shift I consider this to be in terms of workers’ rights in the service sector.  I am convinced it comes in part as a result of advocacy by and for workers, and sets the bar higher and yet attainable for corporations to maximize their value to customers while not disenfranchising their employees.

How can you help advocate for social justice in the technology you use?  First, simply by mindful usage.  Take a few minutes today to open your smartphone and make note of the Apps you use most frequently.  Next, ask yourself, who, if anyone is disadvantaged by my using this App?  Just thinking about the connections can be a powerful mental exercise.  Notice how complicated it can get fairly quickly:  If I use Evernote frequently, I am less likely to write things down on paper, which may be good for the environment but may also disenfranchise industrial workers in paper mills.  Hold on, did I say that you had to stop using Evernote or lobby for paper mills?  No, I’m asking us to sit with the complexity of a problem here for a minute to see the larger systems at play.  Technology has always resulted in job loss for some even as it may provide workplace improvements or quality of life for others.  It’s when we don’t think about these things in a more complex way that we stop innovating social justice itself.

Part of what I’m trying to encourage us to see is that social justice, workers’ rights, unions, and any person or group committed to social justice needs to keep pace with innovation and in fact keep innovating themselves.  Technology always runs the risk of disenfranchising people, especially workers.  If the McCormick reaper in a few hours does the day’s job of three workers, what happens to those three workers?  We are still living in a capitalist society in the US, and it is unlikely that as technology improves and reduces the need for human workers that all of these people will be able to afford to turn their minds and lives to the pursuit of art and culture.  Everything isn’t always getting better for everyone in the current system, and we are seeing overcrowding in occupations ranging from factory to legal work.

If social justice advocates, and social workers are to continue to help the disenfranchised, they are going to need to keep pace with technological developments and continue to think innovatively about 21st century equity in complex and sustained ways.  And by the way, thinking, “the gap is just going to get wider, the social fabric is unraveling,” is not an example of innovative thinking, but defeatism that exempts us from the work of innovation.

This brings me back to my social work colleagues, and my continued urging for them to keep pace with emerging technologies, especially if you are touting the concept of social innovation.  Social innovation without leveraging emerging technology will ultimately lead to future disenfranchisement.  If you have a social innovation department in your social work program that doesn’t leverage technology you are not being socially innovative.  I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I know that the answer to social injustice will inevitably need to integrate emerging technology into it.

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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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Obama, Selfies, Projections & Death

In this video Mike Langlois, LICSW gives an analysis of what the furor around President Obama’s selfie at Mandela’s funeral could say, not about him, but us.

 

 

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