Minecraft & The Uncanny, Part 1

This is the first of a two part series on Minecraft.  Up until now you could only read it if you bought my book, but I am posting it here to give you a sense of what the book is like.  You can buy it here.  More importantly, I’m hoping you will find the topic interesting enough to vote for my presentation proposal on Minecraft & Mindfulness for SXSW this year.  You can do that here.

In 1919 Freud wrote and published an article on “The Uncanny.”  In it he described the concept of the uncanny as a specific type of fear something both strange and familiar.  It is worth noting that the article begins with an investigation into aesthetics, something that was not usually done in the medical literature of Freud’s time.  But Freud realized that there was something particularly aesthetic about the uncanny.  It is an anxiety that both draws on the aesthetic, and from a distance also acquires an aesthetic quality itself.  In fact, it could be argued that a whole genre of fiction, such as Lovecraft, embodies the aesthetic of the uncanny.

In German, the uncanny is unheimlich, which translates literally to the “unhomely” or “unhomelike.”  Here homely has a double meaning.  First homely is the quality of domesticity, the warm hearth of the house, down comforters, a cheery cottage coziness, etc.  Second, heimlich refers to concealment, contained within the house’s domestic sphere, hidden from the public eyes of outside society.

Seen in this light, the uncanny or unheimlich is both alien and a revelation or an exposure.  Freud quotes Schelling as saying that ‘“Unheimlich” is the name for everything that ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light..’” Is it any wonder that Freud took up exploration of this concept, with all of its allusions to the unconscious, anxiety, and societal repression?

Freud also talks about the element of repetition in the uncanny, such as arriving at certain places we’ve been to before, or noticing the number 62 appearing throughout the day in a variety of places.  This element of repetition gives rise to the sense that there is a pattern that we may not be aware of, which in turn makes the world suddenly seem both stranger and more imbued with meaning.

Freud goes on to discuss something gamers will be very familiar with, mana, although he discusses it from outside the framework of fantasy as a form of magical thinking that attributes powers to the neurotic overvaluation of their thought processes and their impact on reality.  But the game world is within the realm of fantasy.  Within that world, what Freud refers to as “the Apparent death and the re-animation of the dead” are fairly commonplace.  The game world returns us in many ways to the animistic state of being, characterized by “the prompt fulfilment of wishes, with secret injurious powers and with the return of the dead.”

The uncanny also figures largely in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and is connected to the idea of man’s “throwness” into the world.  Human beings want to feel at home in the world, but when they encounter the uncanny they experience themselves as thrown into it and apart from it.  For Heidegger the unheimlich eradicates our sense of Being-at-home-in-the-World, but as it does so it reveals something about the World to us.

For Heidegger the World is also revealed to us (and we are revealed as well) by that which is ready-to-hand, something that has a meaning that connects us to the world.  An example is a hammer, which we experience as imbued with meaning and value and inextricably linked to human being.  We don’t think about the hammer, in fact the only time we are really conscious of it is when it isn’t working.  A similar example is your car, if you reflect on it you will probably notice that you only really pay attention to your car as a concept when it isn’t working.

As opposed to ready-to-hand, present-at-hand refers to an uninvested, detached way of looking at something, one that takes us out of any sort of meaningful relationship.  Its meaning may be unclear and unconnected with human being at all.  If I ask you what you’d like to do with that round green and red thing, you’ll be confused.  But if you see it as an apple, things will become much clearer.  It probably isn’t a coincidence, by the way, that most depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden show the fruit as an apple.  Before the Fall, everything is ready-to-hand and imbued with meaning.  Afterwards, in our thrown state, things become less clear, and more uncanny.  Paradise has been lost.

Ninety years after Freud wrote “The Uncanny,” Markus “Notch” Persson created the game Minecraft.   Minecraft is a sandbox type of video game, meaning that the world generated can be permanently changed by the player.  Creativity and survival is the goal, and there is no way to “win” the game.  The premise of the game is that your character is thrown into a vast world designed with 8-bit graphics (think early Nintendo) with only your bare hands.  The game has a day and night cycle, and at night zombies, skeletons, and other monsters come out and will attack you if you are exposed.

Everything in the game world can be destroyed and broken down into elements that can be crafted if you have the right ingredients.  At first you have fewer options, because destroying a tree with your hands takes more time than if you had an axe.  But slowly you gather materials so that you can build things that in turn allow you to build more things, so that you can hopefully build a shelter before night falls.

The landscape of the world is randomly generated by the game, and remains saved if you are killed.  Dig a hole in the ground and it will be there when you return from the dead and to the game.  The graphics are not realistic, with the blocky edges of 8-bit design, which underscores the uncanny element of the world.  The world is vast, and looks like the real world, and also doesn’t.  Minecraft is not trying to trick you into thinking it looks like real life, in fact that is one of the things that makes it so immersive.

Part 2, next week.

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Failing Better


Play is a vital part of being a person, and failure is a vital part of play. One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the connection between autonomy and failure. When children, adolescents and adults for that matter play video games, they fail a lot. In fact, according to Nicole Lazzaro, 80% of the time we are playing video games we are failing. What other activities in our daily lives can we say that about?

Education, on the other hand, at least the traditional model, grades us on a 100% model very differently. If you get 70% of a test or a class material “correct” you get to pass it. If you get 69% it needs to be done over again, or you don’t get any credit at all. This system actually flies in the face of what educators and therapists know about learning, that it is a matter of trial, error, course correction, trial, error, course correction… and so on.

This in some ways answers a question I have often wondered about: Why are we willing to be failing 80% of the time in video games, and so reluctant to risk failure in “real life” even a fraction of the time? One answer the percentages above point to is that education often stacks the deck against us, effectively rendering any mastery of content below 70% as a failure. This failure has attached to it, shame, sense of time wasted, futility, and hopelessness.

But there is another aspect of failing in video games that I think we need to pay attention to, and that is the role of autonomy. In a 2009 study, Jesper Juul found that people prefer to play games where they feel responsible for failing. The majority of those surveyed didn’t want to attribute it to bad luck, but something the did or didn’t do. They wanted a sense of autonomy in their game play, not luck. Conversely, they didn’t want to feel victimhood either, but rather optimism.

I have been playing a game on the iPad called Incoboto which has given me pause to reflect on fun failure. (An aside for gamers who have also played this and Dark Souls, have you considered Incoboto as a cutified version of Dark Souls, trying to link the fire and bring light to a darkened solitary world? Just saying..) The game has a series of puzzles which one needs to solve in order to collect star pieces to feed to the kawaii sun Helios following your character around. There have been a few places where I got “stuck,” and spent in my opinion too much time having to throw something exactly the right way. This highlighted for me the subjective experience I had for the majority of gameplay, that I was being challenged but would eventually be able to overcome the unneccessary obstacle. On those occasions I called getting stuck, I began to experience feelings of victimization and externalize responsibility. The game was not “being fair,” it was too hard, there was a “bug” in it making the ball not land “right.”

What helped me persevere was both compelling graphics and gameplay, but also a sense of faith in the game. Ok, sometimes I cheated too, by looking up spoilers on the game forum. In those moments, you could say that I was giving up the voluntary attempt to overcome an unnecessary obstacle of the game. But, and this is what’s important, I was also ceding my sense of autonomy. It’s a weird balancing act, in one case I didn’t look at the cheat to find the solution as much as to get reassurance that what I was trying was the solution. But even though I was exercising my digital literacy here, I was also giving up for the moment my sense of autonomy, and agency.

Failure, and tolerance of failure is a subject thing, which is why Lazzaro’s presentations illustrate zones, not points, of fiero, frustration, relief, and bored. Everyone has variations in how they experience emotions, and failure in video games. And if I didn’t keep that in mind, I might feel very disheartened when I read this review of Incoboto:

“Great mix of platformer and puzzle game, very smooth learning/difficulty curve, and quite a nice gameplay experience too”

Now I am not going to get into a discussion on norms and trends and the importance of betas, because my point here is to compare and contrast the experiences of failure in video games and education.

Education in our country is trying to overcome some serious design flaws of its own. Children and adolescents are given tremendous responsibility for their performance without a commensurate amount of autonomy. This creates a culture of victimhood. Rather than noticing they got more than half of something right, we flunk them. Rather than setting meaningful individual goals, we create industrialized curriculum. And if we do give someone an individualized set of goals in the form of an IEP, we label them as learning disabled first to justify it!

We need to improve the quality and experience of failure in schools. Because video games don’t occur in a separate reality from the point of view of our minds. That mind/body split of Descartes has been debunked for ages, and yet we’re still talking about “real” life. The reality is that mastering challenges and fun failure creates a feeling of optimism, which neurologically and emotionally improves our ability to learn in the future. If we think we are capable of solving a problem, we will keep at it. Therefore, we need to foster a sense of autonomy in learning. The minute we start talking about “my special needs child,” we are taking away their autonomy.

Am I saying we should expect everyone to perform the same at school or other work? Not at all, I am saying we should be better curators of children in learning environments, and let them have less stigma around failure. In a real sense, every child should have an individualized education plan, because we are moving (hopefully) out of an industrial model of education.

As a therapist and educator who has worked in and with school systems and parents for nearly two decades, I have struggled with this frequently, both within myself and with my patients. The language of diagnoses and learning disabilities is a language I speak all too well, and I have unintentionally colluded at times with parents and systems who use it as shorthand for, “my kid can’t ___.” Maybe if failure was more tolerable and fun in school we wouldn’t be so quick to adopt these identities, and maybe if we curated environments that allowed for more autonomy we would notice different varieties of success as well.

The other night I was on a Minecraft server I participate in, founded by educators and edutechs for their children. Several of the kids were on and chatting when I logged in, and shortly thereafter this huge flame war erupted. Capital sentences of “I HATE YOU” flew across the screen. Kids stormed out of the chat room, returned, then logged off again. Some of the young moderators were instigating further conflict, while others were earnestly trying to figure out why people’s feelings had been hurt in the first place. From the therapeutic point of view, they were failing miserably, exhibiting poor social skills, dysregulated affect, and poor impulse control. It took a herculean act of will not to jump in and actively curate this group and allow them to exercise their autonomy.

They kept at the chatting, and over the next several minutes they began to collaborate on understanding what had happened. This did not have the grown up version of a happy ending where the aggrieved parties apologized and made up, so much as the group told one party that they appreciated the apology and weren’t ready to accept it then (my translation) told a second party to stop instigating in the guise of defending someone, and encouraged the third to come and build something to take his/her mind off of it.

In my mind, the fact that this took place in a game environment where failure is destigmatized and autonomy is presumed made it easier for people to keep at the challenge until it had been resolved “enough.” There was no adult who was forcing them to stay on and work at this, they were voluntarily engaged. There were several halting starts and stops of chat. But social emotional learning was occurring.

This in my opinion is an example of “failing better,” and I think this is a skill that not only can be translated from video game experience, but desperately needs to. The more we except failure as an essential part of learning and work, the less stigmatizing it will be. The less we stigmatize failure, the more we encourage autonomy and optimism. Autonomy and optimism make you a better learner, a better collaborator, and a better worker. Personally I think the world could use a lot more of that.

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Why Therapy Is Like A Game

Game-playing often has negative connotations in the field of psychiatry.  We have all sorts of erudite ways of describing what laypeople call “mind games.” A great example is in the language of Axis II personality disorders.  People are borderline, dependent, avoidant, narcissistic, antisocial, and the most FABULOUS of them all, histrionic.  These words attempt to describe the psychological conditions which motivate problematic behaviors.  Serious business indeed.

But come right out and say that therapy is like a game, even a kind of game, and that gets a lot of hackles up.  Therapy is serious business, and games are anything but serious, right?  Wrong.

To describe something as a game is not to minimize it or take it less seriously, but I suggest to describe what Bernard Suits calls the “lusory attitude.”  This is the state of mind, the psychological attitude, required of any player when they play a game.  The most succinct way Suits describes the lusory attitude is to say that it allows the “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”

An example of this, not mine originally, is that of golf.  The activity is directed at achieving the goal of getting a ball into a hole.  But instead of just creating an activity where we find a ball and drop it into a big hole, we take the hole, make it small, say you can’t use your hands to drop the ball in but must use a metal club, and start you off hundreds of feet away from the hole.  That’s golf, and it is so full of unnecessary obstacles!  There is no reason to make it so challenging, EXCEPT that that challenge is what makes it fun, and frustrating, and more fun.  And nobody drags you into the wilderness, gives you a golf club and points a gun at your head to golf.  It is a voluntary act.  People love to, choose to, spend hours with sticks hitting balls from great distances with the hope of getting them into little holes.  Why choose to do something so weird and difficult?  Because they are playing.  They have voluntarily attempted to overcome unnecessary obstacles.  They have adopted a lusory attitude.

Life is hard.  And for many of therapy patients, life has been extremely hard, and cruel.  And yet, how often do we notice that they are making life even harder on themselves in some ways?  Perhaps unconsciously, perhaps subtly, but more difficult nevertheless.  That neurosis, the reenactment of the past, is what I would suggest is the unnecessary obstacle.

For example let us take PTSD-precipitated by child abuse.  The abuse was serious, hurtful, sadistic, real.  It happened.  But in the case of the adult patient, the abuser is no longer there.  The introjects, the learned stuff, the unconscious stuff, that is all there, but the perpetrator has fled the seen of the crime long ago.  They were real obstacles, but trauma recreates them as unnecessary obstacles in the here and now.

Another example would be a phobia.  Why not be fearful of everything?  Spiders aren’t the only thing that we could fear:  There’s death, and hurricanes, and black cats, and dirt, and blindness, and the next presidential election.  But we don’t fear everything in the world that is or is perceived as harmful to us.  Phobias are very specific, that is why there are so many clever names for them.  They are again, unnecessarily specific obstacles.

Again, I want to stress that by calling these unnecessary obstacles that I am not at all saying that phobias or PTSD or not serious, painful, debilitating, conditions.  What I am saying is that they are unnecessary to the life of the patient.  Even as compromise solutions they have outlived their usefulness if the patient is in the here and now experiencing distress as a result of trying to defend against or cope with the past encroaching on their present.  The repetition compulsion is a game of both danger and optimism.  We do the same things over and over, often with disastrous results, true; but we keep doing it because on some level there is an urge to get it right.  And like a video game, the repetition compulsion doesn’t just get defeated one day; rather we get progressively further in the game, acquire new levels and skills.

When our patients arrive at our office, they are in a state of lusory attitude, they are really trying to resolve the problems the best they can, and they have sought out our help to that end.  If they are mandated to treatment, this is less likely to happen.  But for a majority of patients, they choose to show up.  And from a psychological point of view, showing up must be voluntary for therapy to work.

In order to do therapy, we also have to adopt together a lusory attitude.  Both therapist and patient volunteer to work together to overcome the unnecessary obstacles.  The therapy time and space are in some ways unnecessary obstacles: we choose to limit the session to the 45-50 mins, in a specific office, with only two “players” if it is individual therapy.  These may be the warp and woof of therapy but they are also arbitrary distinctions that create unnecessary obstacles.  We could rotate different therapists in, or meet for varying times whenever we both want, and hang out at Dunkins, but that would be therapy in the sense we are talking about would it?  No, therapy, like games, must have agreed-upon rules.

Although I’m speaking in clearly psychodynamic terms here, doesn’t it seem that more behavioral approaches would find the concept of lusory attitude applicable as well?  Surely we don’t try to extinguish behaviors we think are necessary.  The behavioral approach also implies that the obstacle (behavior) is unnecessary and tries to over come it.

Having a lusory attitude is not always about being lighthearted, although it can be, but it is about taking play very seriously, engaging in it and often having an immersive experience.  Psychotherapists who engage in play therapy with children often have an easier time understanding this than those who do adult psychotherapy.  There is a general tone from our profession of, “we need to be taken seriously,” which I think has lots of its roots in the tendency of the medical profession in the past to have considered it less important.  And somehow being taken seriously becomes equated with being important or being valuable.

I often supervise interns who repress any sense of enjoyment that comes from making an interpretation that moves a patient forward, or seeing theoretical elements manifest in the treatment, and try to help them see that enjoying the process of learning psychotherapy and learning about the patient is not the same as having fun at her/his expense.  As Sutton-Smith says, “The opposite of play isn’t work.  It’s depression.”  In this regard I agree with him:  When engaging in a lusory attitude with patients we are working with them.  Removing those obstacles is very hard, dangerous work, and it is deeply and seriously playful.

To add gamers and video games into the mix, I would suggest that approaching video games as an addiction is a step in the wrong direction.  This is not to say that I don’t think that some people play video games to the detriment of their lives and relationships.  I do think that happens, just like I think people engage in a number of activities at times to the detriment of their lives and relationships.  But to label them as pathological is to miss the point.  Even if we rule out the cultural incompetency of the clinician around video games which often masquerades as dismissal or villainization, we need to understand that we are in essence asking the patient to adopt the same lusory attitude with us that is often there already for them with video games.  We are saying, “don’t play that game, play this game of therapy instead.”

(Unless you have this view of psychotherapy:


Psychotherapy needs to stop taking the lusory attitude for granted.  What if we became more mindful of our lusory attitude?  We all have them, over coffee with a colleague when we look at each other and say, “this is such a weird profession!”  It’s like golf in that respect, it seems; so intricate and complicated with rules we take for granted that make a particular human relationship much more complicated than it has to be.  Try that on the next time you are trying to discuss your fee with someone:  “I charge you $150 an hour because this is a weird relationship that has intricate rules and is much more complicated than human relationships have to be.”

I think that there are strong parallels between therapy, neurosis, and games, and that the thread that links them together may be the lusory attitude.  In games, the design always boils down to a voluntary attempt to overcome and unnecessary obstacle.  In neurosis, the attempt to repress intolerable conflicts and feelings creates an unnecessary obstacle even as the patient tries to remove the unnecessary obstacle of those same conflicts and feelings.  (Game designers may recognize an interesting resemblance to the concept of iterative design here.)  Finally, in therapy, the neurosis or symptom becomes the unnecessary obstacle that the therapist and patient voluntarily attempt to overcome.

What do you think?  Does this jibe with your experience as a therapist, patient, gamer or game designer?


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I Come To Praise First-Person Shooters, Not To Bury Them


I should begin by saying that I don’t personally enjoy the type of video game known as a first-person shooter (FPS) very much.  They make me jittery when I play, and I am easily overwhelmed by them.  I’m still stuck in the tutorial room with Jacob in Mass Effect 2.  If there are settings to disable gore and swearing on a game I’ll click ’em.  But as I looked back on my past posts I realized that I have neglected to weigh in on FPS, and in doing so am guilty of the same kind of dismissal I critique in colleagues.  (Note to gamers: I know there are several important distinctions between FPS and TPS or third-person shooters, but that’s for another post.)

There’s a lot to like about FPS games, and here’s a few examples.

  1. Many FPS such as Halo 2 can be collaborative as well as violent.  Players join platoons and need to learn how to coordinate, communicate and problem-solve in a fast-paced environment.  Games like Halo also provide environments for players to learn how to assume leadership roles, follow directions from other players, and think critically about stressful in-world situations.
  2. FPS encourage impulse control as well as aggression.  Crucial to success in FPS games is the ability to time attacks and maneuvers.  This requires the ability to control the impulse to pull that trigger.  Although we tend to focus on the aggression in FPS, there’s often a lot of sneaking going on as well.  In Bioshock there are actual decision points in the game where refraining from killing characters changes the entire outcome of the game.  Even though the player is not learning teamwork in single-player games, they are often learning the same sorts of forms of decision-making and impulse control in good old-fashioned “Red Light, Green Light.”
  3. First-person shooters improve hand-eye coordination.  One important component of hand-eye coordination is visuospatial attention.  Research by Green et al. suggests that video games improve visuospatial attention, and further that FPS video games do it even better than games like Tetris.  Hand-eye coordination is a skill most of us would agree is a good thing to have.  It helps improve your readiness to learn, increases your ability to excel at sports, increases your confidence and makes juggling less stressful.
  4. First-Person Shooters may increase a sense of mastery and alertness.  So many parents and educators lament how children aren’t able to pay attention.  And yet, what makes FPS games so compelling is their immersive quality.  As Grimshaw et al. discuss, the literature describes immersion in varying ways, such as ‘the state of consciousness when an immersant’s awareness of physical self is diminished or lost by being surrounded in an engrossing total environment, often artificial’  Further, in order to be completely immersed in an environment, “players ‘must have a non-trivial impact on the environment.”  Wandering around the game world may not be sufficient to immerse players into a flow-like state, and shooting people, whatever else you may say about it, does not lend itself to feeling trivial in an environment.  Imagine if classrooms could harness the ability to create such immersive qualities in the classroom.  Much more effective than saying loudly, “Pay attention!” which usually has the exact opposite effect than the statement intended.

Given the above compelling reasons to think well of FPS, why are they so often singled out as the bad seed of video games?  The answer, I would suggest, is a sociopolitical one that gamers as a whole ignore at their peril.

Science is often, maybe always, political, and has an uneasy relationship with civil rights movements.  The example that springs to my mind is the LGBTQ civil rights movement.  Back when a preponderance of science was pathologizing of all LGBTQ people, there was a more predominant solidarity amongst the various thinkers, activists, and citizens of those subcultures.  From Stonewall up through the early AIDS crisis, there was less fragmentation and more coordination, with the understanding that civil rights benefited everyone.

But within the past two decades, many members of the LGBTQ community have begun to receive recognition and acceptance in society as a whole.  At this writing 7 states have legalized gay marriage (Welcome Washington!) and more accept domestic partnerships between same-sex couples.  Bullying based on sexual orientation and hate crimes have received more coverage from media with sympathetic stances towards LGBTQ youth.  And I can’t remember the last time I heard talk about the latest study locating the “gay gene.”

And yet, science and politics have turned their gaze towards specific subsets of the LGBTQ population.  Transgender rights (a notable recent gain in my home state) are still ignored or reduced to bathroom conversations and debates about the poor parenting of those who don’t make their children conform to Cisgender norms.  The status of LGBTQ youth of color as a priority population is met with grumbling.  Bisexuals are still considered in transition or confused, asexuals frigid or repressed.  Polyamory is confused with lack of commitment or neurotic ambivalence, and BDSM isn’t even recognized as worthy of any sort of advocacy.

And to a large extent, whenever one of these specific subcultures are targeted, the other factions of the LGBTQ community remain silent.  And in doing so, they become allied with the perpetrator.  As Judith Herman points out in her seminal work, Trauma And Recovery, “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing.”  This is exactly what members of the LGBTQ community are doing when they cease to maintain the solidarity and mutual support that helped get homosexuality removed from the DSM-III.

And so the focus shifts from the general “gay people are bad/sick” to the more specific populations also under the LGBTQ umbrella, and rather than fighting for them we allow them to be omitted from civil rights.  A case in point was made by openly trans HRC member Donna Rose, when she resigned in protest to HRC supporting an Employment Non-Discrimination Act which included sexual orientation but didn’t include protections for transgender people.  A group may only be as strong as its weakest member, but solidarity often ends when the strongest members of an alliance get what they want.

The gaming community would do well to take a lesson here.  Recently video games have been getting increasing recognition as an art form, an educational tool, and possible solution to world problems ranging from poverty to AIDS.  As society moves to a more progressive stance on technology and video games, studies come under scrutiny for their sweeping and pathological generalizations of a complex and diverse group.

(The most pernicious example of this in my opinion is the concept of the “screen” and “screentime.”  Studies ask questions about how much time subjects spend in front of electronic devices, as if all activities were identical in experience and effect.  Watching television, playing video games, surfing on Facebook are all treated as similar neurological phenomenon, when they aren’t.  It’s much more complicated than that, and different physiological systems are affected in different ways.  Even the idea that all screen time dysregulates sleep the same way is being questioned recently, with televisions showing less repression of melatonin than iPads.  So what screen you’re doing things on makes a difference.  And then there’s what you are doing.

Watching television is a more passive and anergic activiy than playing video games in my experience.  No, I’m not going to cite a particular study here, because I want us to focus on thinking critically about the designs of studies not the data.  And as Paul Howard Jones points out in his video, learning itself activates different parts of the brain at different phases of the individual’s learning cycle of a particular activity.  So yes, video game users have different looking brains than those that aren’t using them, that doesn’t mean it is bad, but that they are using different parts of their brain function and learning different things.  Most people in the gaming community would have some solidarity here with other gamers, and balk at the idea that a screen is a screen is a screen.  And “screen time” is usually implying screens watching television, playing games or surfing the net, not screens compiling doctoral dissertation lit reviews, planning a vacation, doing your homework, or looking up a recipe.)

So gamers are solidly behind fighting these blanket generalizations.  That’s great.  But I find that where gamer solidarity is starting to fall apart is around the more specific attacks that are being levied in science and politics around FPS and violent games.  Studies says these desensitize children to violence, increase aggression and correlate to hostile personalities.  There are also studies that conflict these findings, but I want to ask a different, albeit more provocative question:

What’s wrong with being aggressive?

I think that child’s play has a long history of being aggressive:  Cops and Robbers, water pistols, football, wrestling, boxing, tag all encourage some element of aggression.  Most of us have played several of these in our lifetime with some regularity, have we become desensitized and aggressive as a result?  Am I sounding too hostile?  🙂

And we are sending children and adolescents a mixed message if we label aggression as all out bad.  Not everyone or every job requires the same amount of aggression.  Wanting to be #1 and competing, whether it be in a boxer or a president, requires some aggression.  Aggression is in fact a leadership quality.  It allows us to take risks, weigh the potential hazards, and go for something.  Feelings of aggression heighten our sense acumen, can speed up our assessment of a situation and help us stand up to bullies.  Whether we agree with this war or that, would we really want our soldiers to be in-country with no aggression to help them serve and defend?  Fortune, as the saying goes, favors the bold, not the timid.

FPS games have a place on the Gamestop shelf and a place in the gaming community.  They allow us to engage in virtual activities that have real-life benefits.  They are a focal point for millions of gamers, and I believe unlocking their DNA will go a long way to discovering how to improve work and learning environments.  Stop letting critics shoot them down, or don’t be surprised if you’re in the crossfires next.

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Epic Mickey and Frittering

The last week I have had a blast playing Epic Mickey; two blasts actually.  In the game you’re Mickey Mouse, and your primary tool is an enchanted paintbrush, which sprays two different substances with very different effects.  The first is a magical blue paint, which can make invisible things real, and make an enemy in the game turn blue and become a friend.  The second is a magical green paint thinner, which can make real things invisible, and thin an enemy into nothing.

There are good reasons to do both of these things, but the unnecessary obstacle in the game is that there is a limited amount of paint and thinner, and so if you use too much too quickly, you have to wait until a cooldown replenishes it, or until you find a power-up.  Power-ups, in case you aren’t familiar, are items in the game you can come across that replenish your health, and in the case of Epic Mickey, your paint supply.

The game is a Wii game, and so the motion controller is how you aim the paintbrush to paint or thin.  And when I started playing it quickly became apparent that I was going to have to get better at aiming if I wanted to accomplish anything before running out of paint/thinner.

Epic Mickey teaches therapists, gamers, and anyone else who wants to learn through video games some important lessons about living life and frittering away your resources.  The game has very simple mechanics, but life often has more complicated ones.  Fortunately, this video game can help serve as a meditation on mindfulness and achieving goals.

Lesson 1:  Paint Vs. Thinner

When approaching a problem, relationship, or business, it isn’t always immediately apparent whether to add paint or thinner.  Do we need to add more stuff or clear some off our plate?  Will additional effort reveal opportunities that were invisible moments ago?  Do we need to process more with our partner, or less?  Perhaps we need to simplify, reduce or focus our practice niche? Maybe we need to remove an obstacle, rather than spray creativity all over the place.  One of my favorite paint thinners in real life is Occam’s Razor, which has been often interpreted as “the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one.”  Or to put it more like it was originally intended, we should try to avoid any unnecessary pluralities, and tend towards the simpler theories or applications.  Sounds like thinner to me, who would have thought Mickey Mouse to be a Scholastic thinker?

And to make things more complicated, Epic Mickey shows us how if we can’t make up our minds we will go back and forth between paint and thinner, undoing anything we may have started and wasting time and effort. So whether we decide we need to add something or take something away, we need to commit to a course of action, or we’ll be confusing dithering with effort.  In Epic Mickey so far, I have found that many problems can be solved in a variety of ways, some using paint, some using thinner.  I suspect life is like that too.

Lesson 2:  Keep an Eye on Your Power Reserves

In the game, you always have to keep an eye on your paint and thinner meters to make sure you pace yourself and don’t run out. They will replenish automatically over time, but slowly.  In my business I can attest that this is also true.  I usually have a couple of irons in the fire, but I have learned to pace myself.  I remember a few years back I was seeing 25 patients a week, supervising three interns and therapists, teaching two classes, taking another, sitting on 2 commissions and trying to write.  I had to learn the painful lesson that I was doing a subpar job of every one of these because I wasn’t prioritizing, and perhaps more importantly, I wasn’t allowing time for replenishing myself.  Nowadays, I try to pace myself and make time to do fun stuff, like running at least once a week, playing some games, spending time with my family chilling or getting a massage, eat regularly and get enough sleep.  Not only are these things rejuvenating, but if I can resist multitasking they block off time so I don’t get exhausted and put out subpar work.

Are you keeping an eye on your reserves?  And more importantly, are you willing to give up a few things so that you can devote more time to living life and having fun so you have the energy to do others?  I certainly didn’t want to give up any of the activities I was doing, I liked doing them all, just not all at once.  Often I hear colleagues say “I just don’t have enough time to simplify and relax,” as if it is a luxury rather than a choice.  Sure giving up a couple of things is going to discombobulate you, especially if you’ve learned to pride yourself on being busy.  But you won’t run out of paint as often.

Lesson 3:  Keep an Eye Out for Power-Ups

In Epic Mickey, time isn’t the only way to replenish, there are treasure chests with power-ups.  When I recently defeated the Clock Tower Boss, the way I did it was to keep an eye out for power ups, and sometimes pass up what seemed a perfect shot to get a power-up.  In the long run, keeping an eye out for the things that power you, your relationship or your work up will be worth foregoing the perfect shot.  This is especially true in relationships:  It can be very hard for us to resist zinging that perfect shot, but backing away and taking time to do something replenishing will usually make things turn out more harmoniously!

What are your Power-Ups?  Is it a massage, a walk in a botanical garden, meditation, playing Super Mario or spending time with your kids?  It’s your responsibility to figure out what these are, make a little time for them regularly, and do them even when you aren’t feeling totally depleted.  Pay attention to what happens when you do certain things, eat a certain way, or take something else into your being.  Do you double in size and power?  Become able to hurl fireballs?  Defeat previously impossible monsters?  If so, chances are whatever you just took in is a power-up.

Lesson 4:  Focus stops Frittering

Last, the more targeted you are in what you’re trying to do, the less wasted energy and resources you’ll have.  In life, like in Epic Mickey, you often need to aim for something. Sure, sometimes random efforts yield surprising results.  When it does, huzzah, but that’s no excuse for not trying to be focused.  Mindfulness is in a large part about focusing your mind and body on something, letting distractions drift by.  Use the Force Luke–if you don’t you will probably find yourself feeling depleted, frustrated, and confused as to why.

Yes, focusing means giving up on something else.  Frittering means giving up on everything while deluding yourself you haven’t.  Parents who become obsessed with quality time rather than choosing a game night are frittering.  Saying you want a committed marriage while you’re out every night drinking beer with the buddies is frittering.  Complaining about managed care and lower fees rather than marketing your business or helping a forward-thinking candidate is frittering.  And there are a thousand other ways that all of us confuse dithering with effort.  So pick something and try to focus on it single-mindedly.  At least that’s what works for Epic Mickey, and can an 83 year-old mouse who can still defeat monsters and jump over chasms be all wrong?  I think not.

The Importance of Having a Secret Headquarters

The Gamification of Psychotherapy

“Ring Around The Rosy by W. Earle Robinson

In the 19th century Sigmund Freud revolutionized the fields of neurology and psychiatry.  Whether you agree or disagree with the particulars, psychoanalytic theory, and the psychodynamic theories that sprang from it changed the way we understand the human mind.  Freud pioneered our understanding of the psychosomatic illness, conflicts, drives and the unconscious, to name but a few of the ideas that still influence theory and practice of psychotherapy today.

The way Freud came to understand and then attempt to help us understand these ideas was by applying other theoretical models to our psychology.  The industrial revolution, with its steam-powered hydraulics and locomotives powered by internal pressure, heavily influenced his beginning work of trauma affect and drive theories.  His famous topographic model of the psyche, with its strata of conscious, preconscious and Unconscious, was inspired by the advances in geology and archaeology of his day.  In short, the technological advances of his time informed and shaped the way he thought about and worked with people.

Now we are in the 21st century, which is new enough that saying it still fills us with amazement.  The revolutions in technology continue, and I want to begin applying some of these technological advances to my theory and practice.  I have blogged a lot about games, and today I want to discuss the application of game theory in understanding the human psychology.

Gamification is the act of using the elements of game design and applying it to other parts of human existence.  We have seen gamification begin to be used in businesses like IBM and written about in the Harvard Business Review.  MacDonald’s has been using gamification with its’ Monopoly game for years.  The Army has been using viedo game technology to gamify our defenses.  Socially Serious Games like Against All Odds are being used to educate people about human rights and global conflict.  So can gamification be applied to psychotherapy?

I think so.

In her new (and excellent!) book Reality Is Broken, Jane MacGonigal reminds us of the concise yet brilliant description of what a game is according to Bernard Suits.  Suits states that “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” in his book The Grasshopper.  An example of would be chess where we agree to use the playing pieces on the board, the unnecessary obstacle is that each type of piece can only move a certain prescribed way, and we attempt to overcome this in order to capture the king of our opponent.

One example of gamifying psychotherapy is if we posit something similar:  Psychotherapy is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

Psychotherapy must be voluntary to be successful. If the patient refuses to engage in the process either by physically or mentally absenting himself, therapy will not happen.  Yet even people mandated to treatment can benefit from it if they agree subconsciously to engage with us.  Adolescents who are dragged to treatment will sit with us in stony silence week after week because they are not there voluntarily.  Sometimes we can get a part of them to come out and “play,” i.e. engage with us.  And if we don’t want to work with the patient for some reason, it makes treatment next to impossible.

Patients come to us because they are attempting to overcome something.  They don’t just drop in because they wanted to read the magazines in the waiting room.  Something in their life has caused them pain, sadness, anger, discomfort and they want that to stop.  They may have noticed a pattern of bad relationships, they may be having traumatic flashbacks, they may be encopretic.  But something in their life outside the therapy office has seemed insurmountable, and they want our help in overcoming it.

Which brings us to the unneccessary obstacle.  I would suggest that in many cases the symptom is the unnecessary obstacle.  Whatever the behavior might have been in the past it is no longer necessary now.  As a child, hiding their body or mind may have been necessary to keep themselves safe from an abusive parent or sibling.  As an adult, their tendency to dissociate in meetings and avoid success at work is an unnecessary obstacle.  As a teen a patient may try to control an out of control environment in order to feel a sense of self.  As an adult they may seek to control their bodies through disordered eating or self-injury for much the same reason.  The challenge here is that the patient continues to go through life unconscious of this and acting as if the obstacle was necessary.  In a sense they are playing out (albeit very seriously and sometimes fatally) something outside of the playground.

Huizinga referred to the “magic circle” of play, within which the game unfolds.  Therapy, with its 45-50 minute hour, office setting and professional boundaries, is such a magic circle.  If you don’t take the idea of play seriously, you will probably find this analogy offensive.  But in my opinion play is very serious.  In psychotherapy, patient and therapist become earnestly engaged in the immediacy of what happens.  People become ghosts of other people, monsters appear, and ancient kingdoms rise up from beneath the waves for a day.  I believe that most people who have been in treatment will be able to recall the immersive and powerful experiences they have had there, experiences which have felt tragic and heroic.  Hopefully the patient leaves the magic circle having changed, the unnecessary obstacle is overcome, and life gets better.

We live, as Freud did, at the threshold between two centuries.  We live, as Freud did, in a world story frequently punctuated by war.  I imagine that back then things felt as difficult, healing seemed as urgent as it does today.  People came to Freud then, and us now, to help them overcome unnecessary obstacles that were ruining their lives.  Freud benefited from applying the diverse technologies of hydraulics, geology and archaeology to understand the human condition; and I believe that we can benefit from applying ludology and game theory to the serious business of therapy.  Gamification will not be used to “lighten up” treatment but rather deepen it.  Patients who play video games may respond better to leveling up than treatment planning, power-ups as opposed to coping strategies.  Virtual worlds may serve as practice for real ones, just as therapy has served as practice for other relationships.

Freud was an Epic Therapist.  He researched and synthesized what was going on in the art and science of his day in order to do better treatment.  Today’s Epic Therapists will need to do the same, and that means having the courage to play with technology, games and ideas.  Our resistance to doing so is an unnecessary obstacle we need to overcome, and our success in achieving this will be an Epic Win for our patients and our profession.