If Freud Had Played Video Games

This post is dedicated to my supervisee, Alex Kamin, who inspired me to make the connections. I learn so much from my supervisees!

Last night I spent a great deal of time mining for diamonds.  They are fairly rare, and can only be mined if you have an iron pickaxe (or a diamond one).  This meant that I needed to mine iron ore first with a stone pickaxe, but I should start at the beginning.

Minecraft is a game which now rivals WoW in popularity.  It has been around in beta for a while, but now has been released to the general public.  The game takes place in what is known as a sandbox world.  What that means is that the game world can be effected permanently by the player.  Dig a hole and it stays dug, chop a tree down and it stays chopped, plant new ones and in time they grow.  As opposed to having a beginning, middle and end, Minecraft can be played for as long as you like.  You can play it in single-player mode or log on to a minecraft server and participate in a multiplayer world.

Starting with nothing but her or his bare hands, your character takes materials from the environment and fashions tools, houses, works of art out of these raw materials.  That is the crafting part.  Once you have fashioned the most basic pickaxe, out of wood, you start to do the mining part.  Which brings me back to diamonds.

Diamonds are very rare blocks in Minecraft, and are mostly found at the bottom layer of the world.  You have to tunnel through loads of dirt blocks, stone blocks, and gravel blocks.  Sometimes you tunnel straight into lava and get burned up.  Sometimes the ground beneath you turns out to be a giant chasm and you plummet.  Sometimes there is water that floods your tunnel, or monsters if you are looking in one of the world’s many caves.

A lot of time is spent underground, but a big part of the game is to bring the materials back up to the surface.  There you make your crafting table, house, and forge.  Days and nights pass.  At night the monsters from the caves come out and roam the surface, and you’d better be in your house with the doors shut!

This is a very brief synopsis of an amazing virtual world that is already being used in classrooms and by families to provide cooperative and fun learning. You can find one such example, The Massively Minecraft Network, here.

One group who could benefit from understanding and playing Minecraft is psychodynamic psychotherapists, especially psychoanalytically-oriented ones.

For decades, psychology textbooks have used the iceberg to explain Freud’s early topographical model of the mind.  It’s the one I grew up as a therapist with, and you probably did too.  One version is this one:

Photo found on Allpsych.com

The topographical model introduces the concepts of the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious.  Freud was ultimately dissatisfied with this model, and moved on to his structural theoretical model of Id, Ego and Superego.  I wonder if he would have done so if he’d been able to play Minecraft.

Two of the deficits of the topographical model as pictured by an iceberg are its static nature and its failure to locate where and how psychotherapy works.  The second deficit derives from the first.  Psychodynamic therapy is as the name suggests, a moving process.  Now imagine playing the game I described above, and you have a dynamic model.  There is the conscious surface that changes over time, is constantly changing and growing, where things are visible.  There are the caverns and depths which are the unconscious.  And there is the preconscious twilight and night, when the monsters and creatures from the unconscious slip up to the surface and terrify us.

In terms of describing psychodynamic therapy, Minecraft makes that easy too.  I have often had a difficult time explaining to a patient what the unconscious is and why I think it is important.  But any gamer who has played Minecraft will understand the process of therapy and their work in it in the metaphors of mining.  During the week, our patients roam the surface of their psychosocial world.  Then one, two, or three times a week, they come into therapy and begin tunneling.  Week after week they mine dirt, stone, and occasionally strike a vein of insight.  Like iron ore, insight is a necessary but insufficient requirement for change.  Without smelting and crafting, iron ore can never become a tool we can use.  Likewise, without reflecting on our behaviors and changing them we can never improve our ego functions.

You can explain ego functioning via Minecraft as well, by discussing those above tools.  Tools in Minecraft include shovels, pickaxes, hatchets, swords, wool shears and hoes.  A hoe is excellent to use in gardening, whereas a sword will not function in the game that way.  You can chop down a tree with a pickaxe but it takes longer and wears down the pickaxe more quickly than if you were to use a hatchet.  Different ego functions do different things, and the ego defenses are only one subset of the ego functions.  Only one of the tools is explicitly made to be a weapon.

And if you lead with your ego defenses all the time you will be disappointed.  Take sheep for example.  If you kill a sheep with a sword you get one block of wool.  But if you shear it with the iron shears you get three wools, and the sheep lives to grow more wool.  By the way, if you craft a hoe you can grow wheat, which allows you to domesticate and breed sheep for even more wool.  Just so our ego functions, which provide a holistic and dynamic system that allows us to mediate the world and our wishes.

When you start mining you have a wooden pickaxe.  You mine stone so you can get a stone pickaxe.  You mine iron ore with the stone one.  Only iron pickaxes can mine diamonds.

Psychotherapy takes time and effort, lots of time and effort, if you are aiming for more than symptom reduction.  Patients begin with the raw tools they started out with, and build on each developmental gain.  Often our patients will feel very raw and discouraged, state that they despair of ever getting better, whatever better means to them.  When that happens we can remind them that therapy is minecraft.  It takes delving and work back on the surface in the real world outside the office.  It takes time and patience.  Sometimes they will feel consumed by feelings as hot as lava, or flooded by memories like water in a mineshaft.  Sometimes it will feel like they’ve lost everything they’ve been carrying and have to start over.  But with each set of tools they acquire they’ll find it easier to make their way in the world.

And sometimes they will find diamonds.


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  1. I don’t know the game, but the idea of mining is an easy concept for people to grasp on to, so thank you for the very rich analogy and introduction to Minecraft.

    Not sure if this is part of the game, but can you dig up some mineral or material and toss it back if you don’t need or don’t want it? Sometimes things come up in therapy that we’re not ready for, and decide to revisit at a latter time. Just like a lump of coal could turn into a diamond, or from your other post, how a particle of sand can become a pearl over time.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      John, great question, and to expand on the metaphor you “bring up” you can in fact throw away materials you don’t want or need. In fact, you can only carry so much in your inventory. And when you get a full inventory, you can’t carry more until you learn how to build “containers” to hold them. No need to be more explicit here, I think. 🙂

  2. Deborah Greene Bershatsky, PhD says

    Okay, Mike: Now you’ve gone too far. We have come a long way from Freud, but even he didn’t really think his patients should have to know about their unconscious in any intellectual way. Furthermore, he didn’t “dig” for gems in anyone’s defenses. These days we know that the ego defenses are there for a reason, and we don’t even mess with them until we have a silent understanding of what the unconscious wishes and impulses are. We let it all “float to the top” in its own time.

    Your metaphor works for the most ruthless of therapists, looking to overcome resistance, but where is the transference in this model? The discouragement patients feel comes from having created a repetition in the relationship with the therapist – and I stress the word, relationship – of his or her past relationships, often dating back to before they could talk or even before they were born. This work requires a person-to -person effort, that is unlike any interaction with a computer game, and requires communication of emotions, one to the other, in a gentle way, avoiding eruptions, lava, and other terrifying monsters that may be lurking beneath the surface. We treat lightly and with all our attention trained on the patient. Psychodynamic therapy is also not like the parallel play in MMORPGs – even when you “team” up with other people against a common enemy.

    I hope that ultimately we can live in the real world most of the time, and that gaming eventually takes a back seat in our lives as adults. I am totally on board with your “radical transparency.” I find that idea to be absolutely brilliant, and it has helped me to navigate the treacherous waters I found myself in when I had already been on Facebook for too long, and they mixed my public and private life without warning.

    I have also used gaming with kids as a way to go along with those whose basic withdrawal from object relations found in the caused them to spend hours each day outside the real world in the fantasy world of some of the more amazing computer games. I have been fascinated with a game or two in my life, but when it started taking up too much of my waking life, I knew I had to cut it down, and by now I don’t play any games at all, even my favorite one, because it’s gone to hell in a handbasket, now that Disney owns it.

    I have never objected to the violence in video games, because I think it helps people to find harmless discharge of highly aggressive feelings that may be too dangerous to focus toward another human being – but only for a time. Eventually I have found a way to insinuate myself into the relationship with a gaming child, playing with them or against them, or even just watching them with more interest than they are shown by their parents until they notice that I’m noticing. And then, thank god, they start to talk to me, and the games go away.

    You’re an amazingly intelligent person, and you have a lot to say to therapists about gaming and a lot to teach them about how it can be used in therapy, but gaming ultimately has to be seen for what it is, when it goes beyond simple recreation: a defense against living in the real world. In moderate doses it’s an escape we can all enjoy up to a point. I even think gaming has saved the lives of some kids and even adults who really have no other way of interacting safely with their environment. But eventually the hope is that they can be with another human being, and no games of any kind, just the two of them together, with a strengthened ego, capable of intimacy, and the beautiful rainbow of emotions that goes gives our lives meaning. Gaming is certainly an invaluable tool for getting there, but in my opinion, it is in no way meaningful beyond true object relations and a reenactment in the transference to a therapist, who hopefully can bring them beyond whatever interfered with their maturation, so that they can interact with others in the deepest, most fulfilling ways, eventually putting all games where they belong: in the arena of entertainment, and stress-relief, when the world of people becomes too a bit too stimulating.

    I’m a big fan of yours, so please take my criticism in the spirit in which it’s intended: Don’t f*&# with Freud. 😉

    • Dr. Bershatsky, you’re so right. Gaming is fine in moderation, but used as a regular recourse, it becomes a substitute for proper object relations, just like something else we all know must be enjoyed carefully in moderation: music. The analogy is very direct. Where musicians and “music fans” use music as a means of accessing affect and releasing it without engaging consciously with internal objects to allow themselves to remain distanced (if not alienated) from intolerable (or, really, any) affect, gamers substitute game play to allow themselves to remain alienated from external objects for the same reason. Where musicians use music to flee self-awareness (“losing themselves in the music”), gamers retreat into their immersive fantasy. And in exactly the same way its such a tragedy that music can completely consume a person’s life (even, as reported in some cases, to the point they have to do it for money to support their habit! See the movie “High Fidelity” (2000) for a sensitive treatment of this phenomenon) such that the musician can never express affect directly, and never know intimacy with others, gaming poses a threat of ever more compelling alternatives to reality that can consume the gamer utterly.

      It’s almost as bad as dance.

      • Deborah Greene Bershatsky, PhD says

        Minder, while I take your point and analogy, as a classical musician, i have no words to describe the emotional intimacy I experience with others making, and at times just listening together. I am sure you are referring to popular music, which is less about object relations, proper or not, and more, as you say, a substitute. It is also closely related to today’s problem of overstimulation and how people cope with it by keeping up a level of “noise” so as not to have to focus on their internal experience nor on the affect and impulses generated in them by other human beings in their immediate environment, thus keeping them defended against making contact with people in the external world.

        Also, although I have a Freudian background please don’t take me for a Freudian: There is a man who never knew the exquisite pleasures of “aural stimulation,” as my colleagues like to say. I have an affinity for the Jungians, but in truth I no longer identify with psychoanalysis at all, having instead chosen to find a way to bring the best of that discipline into a less formal way of interacting with the clients of today, who are pathologized by medical science, and for whom magic of any sort is often irresistibly seductive. I am in search of a way to remain in the real world with them while coming into contact with the riches of the universe, so perfectly iterated in the individual human unconscious.

        My thoughts are too “meta” to be expressed in this blog, but I think we both appreciate Mike and his invaluable contribution to psychotherapy. He has his finger on the pulse of today’s youth, and is helping to make the transition to a major paradigm shift in the field of mental health, necessitated by the connectedness in the midst of which we now find ourselves at the dawn of the digital age.

        • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

          Aw shucks, “invaluable contribution” ?! Thanks Deborah. I do wish people would value it more and buy the book for a mere $2.99 though… 🙂

        • Dr Marko Hakonen says

          Minder and Deborah; it seems that all activities that do not involve “proper object relations” such as listening to music (why pop is better than classical?), writing this blog entry or a book or anything, and actually all solitary work, are somehow dangerous “substitutes” of “the real”. I’m not a gamer. I am a researcher of psychology and that involves lots of solitary work. Would you immediately infer that I’m using work to defend the surfacing my hidden subconscious impulses since I am sometimes immersed in writing or analyzing data without any contact to “real life objects”. Are you guys sure that you are “remaining in real world” with your patients as you deal with such constructs as subconscious or superego – terms of one (out of many other) theories in psychology on human mind?

      • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

        Fun factoid for you, sarcasm comes from the Greek sarkasmos which translates as “to tear flesh.”

        That said, I think you rally your (and my) argument well here by arguing with the music analogy. In terms of the arts and technology, we’ve been here before. The novel was dangerous because it overexcited young women and encouraged fantasy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Film was criticized as an art form in the 20th. And our government only legistatively recognized video games as an art form in the 21st century.

        Welcome back to the comments!

        • Thank you! My muse is a vengeful muse: I’m mostly likely to comment when pissed off. In this way, so long as the internet exists, I shall never want for inspiration.

          I have particular twitch around the psychoanalytic invocation of the virtue of the “real” because it seems to boil down to exulting a particular class of activities, those which involve survival of the individual (work for pay to provide food and shelter) and the propagation of the species (the bearing and raising of children). Fine and dandy things those are, but when a moralistic hierarchy of values is set up which put those on top, the slope is very short and steep to the pit of oppressive gender essentialism. Or put another way, there’s no guardrail between the assertion that raising children as the “most real” activity one can engage in and the plunge of pathologizing adults who don’t have children, mothers who chose to work outside the home, and anybody who engages in non-procreative sexual activity.

          Funny how we started with games and wound up somewhere so serious, no? But then, games are never only games.

          • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

            You’re welcome. You and John Webster and I may share a muse in common. In his Jacobean play the White Devil, one of his characters has a great line to this effect (edited to suit our purpose):

            O that I… had power
            To execute my apprehended wishes!
            I would whip some with scorpions.

            Now let’s get you out there with your erinyetic muse and start blogging! 😉

        • P.S. There’s also something huge here which I’m not up to articulating about how our culture conceptualizes “work” (and the implicit category “not-work” into which “play” is shoved). I see in a bunch of the responses latent assumptions about the nature and experience of gaming which are deductions from emic beliefs about “work” and “not-work” (i.e. implicitly: “if games are ‘play’, they’re ‘not-work’, so must have the properties our culture attributes to ‘not-work’ and must not have the properties our culture attributes to ‘work'”). I think our culture has some very foolish beliefs about “work”, that lead us often to grief; when we talk about games, these beliefs shape responses in hostile ways.

          • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

            I’m with Stuart Brown on this one. He quotes Brian Sutton Smith, who says that the opposite of play is not work, but depression. Have you seen his TED talk?

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Hi Deborah, I loved the comment, and the discussion it provoked. And no I didn’t take it personally. Herein we have the difference between blog posts and scholarly articles. My goal here is often really to get the theoretical ball rolling, and get a wide range of readers (therapists, gamers, game developers, and other human beings) thinking, discussing and retweeting.

      I don’t disagree at all with the way you conceptualize or suggest we treat the ego defenses, and when I teach my students ego psychology I say similar things. What I do disagree with in your comment is the following:

      1. Freud said a lifetime of things about the unconscious, the drives and the defenses. I probably don’t need to tell you, but should mention to all reading, that his dissatisfaction with his thinking constantly propelled him and his theory of psychology forward through at least 3 distinct phases of development, which complemented and often contradicted other writings of his. So to say that Freud thought one way is a bit too selective in my thinking.

      2. I do think that video games can go beyond being perceived as the ego defense of avoidance, or even adaptive regression in service of the ego. If anything, like other great art forms they could be sublimation as well. And yes, I do think that video games are an art form, by which I mean they are cognitive, aesthetic, and revelatory in some way of human being. Like other works of art they can be varied in quality, but nonetheless aesthetic.

      3. By the perspective endorsed by your comment, what I say next would probably be dismissed as pathological, but I take issue with your description of the “real” world. It privileges the physical over the mental, and I think that’s a false dichotomy anyway. I’ve had real relationships with people in-game, real conversations, real meaning, and real fun. I guess if nothing else, this discussion has helped me take one step further out of the closet as a futurist. I keep agreeing with too many futurist thinkers and often sounding like one, so I guess I am a bit. I’ll dare to suggest Freud resembled one at times as well. Different fin de siecles, but a resonance nonetheless.

  3. Mike, if the Freudians don’t want you, you’re welcome over here with the Jungians. The association of underground spaces with the unconscious and of delving as representing self-exploration, the passage into the underworld as part of the hero’s journey — all have a long and venerable history within analytic thought.

    I have a friend and colleague who is a music therapist, and she assigns custom ring tones on her phone to all her contacts. She asked me what song I’d like to ring on her phone when I called her. I picked “Dig”.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Minder, don’t even get me started on Jung and archetypes, that would be a whole book in itself! I sincerely hope the Jungians and the Freudians will both accept me in their camps, even if only as a generalist interloper. 😀

  4. Fishing is a better metaphor.

    In mining, the stuff stays there unless you dig it out.

    But in reality, the stuff that is unaddressed starts to push itself out even if you don’t go mining for it.

  5. Interesting how strong a reaction this particular post has evoked. I do believe that a significant component of the powerful draw of virtual games and interactions is the difference in difficulty between them and “real life”. No question the fact that you hardly ever sweat or get blisters while tapping a key makes virtual mining a more rewarding activity than real world labor. Similarly, due to the necessary reduction in complexity (at this point) of virtual activity, the outcomes are still much more predictable than those in RT. I don’t think, however, that one can accurately say that the personal experience during gaming/virtual activity is in some way inferior to other activities in one’s life. If I feel jubilant when I defeat a particularly difficult boss, is that personal feeling less-valid than the same emotion arising from earning a good grade on a quiz at school? Both are actually rather arbitrary successes, conferring no real benefit in the big picture other than the positive feelings of competency and success after perseverance on my part. It is almost a foregone conclusion that in the very near future a large portion of our waking life will be carried out at some remove from what we now consider “real life”, but I seriously doubt that we will be “less than” as a result.

    E. Coyle, http://panyrgy.com

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Hi Ed,

      I know, this post did get a lot of people thinking and discussing. Always gratifying. I like your expansion and critique of what “real” means. The key is in not privileging one aspect of human being over another here. I’ll be glib here and suggest that physical is mental, and vice verse, unless you’re a Cartesian anyway.


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