What I Learned at Pax East.

For those of you who aren’t in the know, Pax East is a 3 day event founded by Penny Arcade a great website for online comics and other fun stuff.  Pax East takes place in Boston, and this is it’s 2nd year.  It is a huge convention which had approximately 70,000 video, tabletop and PC gamers.  Last year I went to Pax East because I had finally decided I needed to take gaming and gamer-affirmative therapy seriously as part of my growing practice.  I had always thought video games were fun, but it was only over the past 10 years that I had come to see that they could be life-changing.

I had discovered firsthand how World of Warcraft, Mario, and Zelda had helped me recover from a terrible job loss and re-evaluate what I wanted my work and life to be like.  I had met dozens of gamers in-game and out who were recovering from various life struggles through gaming.  I met soldiers stationed in Iraq who were gaming to keep their morale up or stay in touch with their families.  I met LGBT people who had come out and found community for the first time in a Warcraft guild.  I met people who had fought off isolation in other countries by raiding with loved ones at home.  Still more had survived a divorce, discovered a way to rebuild confidence when they’d lost the ability to walk, or taken the first steps to socializing when their autism had stigmatized them and all seemed lost.

I also began to meet a growing number of young men and women who were refusing to be labeled as addicted or abnormal by virtue of their gaming experience.  And I began to wonder what it would be like if as a therapist I came out as a gamer and helped people begin to take video games seriously.

At the same time I began to realize that I needed to take my career more seriously, because I had decided to start a full-time private practice.  I had had a part-time practice for over a decade, but it always felt like a hobby.  And so when I began to float the idea to family and colleagues I was amazed by their response.

They took me seriously.

Anyone who has launched a business can probably identify to some extent.  You spend a lot of time wishing, and then daring, and when you finally decide to tell others you find that they have a far easier time taking you seriously than you do yourself. It was as if the company I’d helped built, my education and my CV were all fluff in my head.

If I had a hard time imagining myself as a independent businessman and a full-time private practice therapist, you can imagine how hard it was to imagine being a successful therapist who specialized in video games, virtual worlds and social media.  Sure I could justify playing video games with children I worked with, but a gamer-affirmative therapist?  This was a harder row to hoe.  I had people thinking I meant online gambling and referred gamblers to me.  I had colleagues who pretended Facebook didn’t exist and glazed over when I told them about the social media company I had helped develop.  And most often I had this response.

Oh, I don’t know anything about video games.”

This from colleagues who were throwing out the term gaming addiction willy-nilly.  So I knew that I had a couple of choices, keep quiet or begin working with gamers and educating psychotherapists about what video games actually are, and what they can do for us.  And I decided that if I was to really try to educate people on video games and doing therapy with gamers, I’d have to take myself seriously.  And that is where Pax East and Blizzcon came in.

Where better to meet gamers than in those places?  And what better form of continuing education for me than to see what is happening in the gaming world?  This was part of the work I wanted to do, and the only thing holding me back from engaging in it seriously was that I felt guilty for having fun.  From graduate school and continuing education I had learned that education was serious and not necessarily fun.  But when I took the plunge I found that the money I spent on travel and the conferences was totally worthwhile, and the people I met were really interested in my work.  This is something my colleague Susan Giurleo wrote about recently regarding another such convention that she is going to, SXSW.

I’ve learned a lot in the past two years.  Last year at Pax East I didn’t have nearly as much fun as I did this year, because I felt like I needed to be there every minute and take everything seriously.  This year I went Friday and picked a few things I wanted to do, like attend Jane McGonigal‘s keynote speech.  And I took fun more seriously and learned more.  I got a sneak peek and play of the Nintendo 3DS.  I got to watch the amazing new XBox Kinect game Child of Eden.  I walked around all day with a Plants Vs. Zombies traffic cone on my head.  I participated in the largest massively multiplayer thumb-wrestling match in world history!  And all around me I saw happy and energized people playing and socializing with strangers.

I was reminded of the things I tell my supervisees all the time, that if you aren’t enjoying yourself in your work something is wrong.  Because enjoying yourself helps you achieve a state of believing that success is possible.  And that the people who settle for less in their work get less.  Such optimism is crucial, because running your own business takes a lot of time and effort.  I have never worked as hard at a job in my life, and I have never loved what I do as much as I do now.



  1. What a wonderful turning point in your life. The puritanical roots of U.S. society makes us so suspicious of having fun. You post makes me wonder what our lives would be like if we could shift our paradigm for living by just assuming that fun should be core to our lives.

  2. I’m 32, a female geek, and get weird looks from people when I tell them that I play Toon Town Online (Disney’s MMORPG). But how else am I supposed to play with my nephew when he lives in California and I live in Minnesota?! When I say that, it seems to “make it okay” with my listener – what I don’t tell them is the hours I spend playing the game sans Nephew. 😉 (Partly because he’s now been sucked in WoW. 🙁 )

    One of my housemate’s friends thinks I’m “odd” for loving Disney films, theme parks, etc. And yet she spends every chance she gets playing pen-and-paper DnD! We all have things we enjoy, and they’re not always the same, even among a group of friends. I realized in high school that I can hide my true self, constantly apologize for liking the things I like, and not have any fun…but life is far too short for that! So I stopped caring about what others might say and went about having fun, unapologetically.

    I use Toon Town to play with my nephew and/or throw a pie at a Bossbot to take out my frustrations around my long unemployment; I play cribbage with a friend in London to stay in touch with her; I sometimes use The Sims for catharsis when I’m mad at someone… It’s nice to see someone in the psych field acknowledging that such activity isn’t (necessarily) wrong. 😉

    End of next week, I’m moving back to California as part of a “retreat and regroup” strategy aimed towards getting back on my feet – and I’ll get to play with Nephew in person again! And, hopefully, return to school to pursue a Master’s in Counseling Psychology (I’m waiting to hear on the university’s admission decision). I’d love to work with geeks and LGBTQ and kids in my future career, so I’m happy to find a blog written by someone on/near that same track. 🙂 I look forward to catching up and seeing what comes up in future.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Glad you found the site! Also thank you for alerting me to the existence of Toon Town. Epic Mickey is on my todo list after Portal 2, and the list continues to get longer. Good luck on your retreat and regroup to CA!

      • Hey, glad I could help. Some of the best parts about Toon Town:
        – You can play quite a lot of the game without having to pay for a subscription.
        – The game focuses heavily on teamwork.
        – I maintain that we adults should like the game even more than kids, because we actually KNOW Backstabbers, Micro Managers, Ambulance Chasers, and all the other Cogs (game enemies). 😉
        – You never die. Your toon just becomes sad.

        My laptop doesn’t have a good enough video card for Portal 2. 🙁 I’m hoping that my brother-in-law’s computer might be able to run it when I get out to CA.

        Ooh, and Epic Mickey! My sister’s family has a Wii (I finally get to play with one!)… if they don’t already have Epic Mickey, I’m going to campaign for them to get it. 😉

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