Minecraft & The Uncanny, Part 2

This is the second 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 Minecraft, nothing is present-at-hand, at least initially, until you realize that the ground you are running on or the mountain you are climbing aren’t just that, they are materials.  You can dig up stone to make a furnace, then bake bricks out of clay, build a house and so on.  The world gradually becomes ready-to-hand.

There is no avoiding the sense of throwness when you begin playing Minecraft.  It comes with very few directions, although there is plenty of info on the web to be had.  The downloadable beta allows you to play single and multi-player, with the single being a good way to practice the basic mechanics.  The multiplayer version opens up a whole new vista.

The multiplayer game is hosted on individual servers all over the world, some of which you can log into for free, others for a small fee.  Once logged in, the virtual world is a huge massively multiplayer sandbox, which can be a very social experience.  The cooperative building in some of these worlds is incredible.  My first journey to a server in France threw me into a world which included a vast underground city beneath a dome of molten lava.  Players are allowed to explore the world, and at a certain distance from their neighbors mine, farm and build.  Like Second Life, you can port to various places on the server, and encounter anything ranging from a Waterslide Park to a model of Hyrule, all built out of the game materials by the players.

Once in the multiplayer world, the social element of the game can become compelling.  People on chat are offering to sell gold ingots, suits of armor they crafted, or tracts of land they have developed, for both in-game and out of game monies.  You can have as much or as little to do with that as you like, and you can teleport to far-off corners of the map if you want to build and play in undeveloped lands.

In its simple mechanics, Minecraft allows us to glimpse the uncanny experience that I would suggest all video games have.  Video games are a unique art form in that they are both interactive and aesthetic by nature.  In fact they are far more stimulating and less anergic than watching television, and stimulate more regions of the brain.

Video games allow us to experience our throwness in a new world, and the animistic state of being inherent in the uncanny. We are never completely at home in the world of the game, although the game may become more familiar over time (or not, in the case of the indie game Limbo.)  We are always just visiting, strangers in a strange land.  But within the game world, mana and magic are also real, and our thoughts and strategies can quickly and permanently change the world.

Psychotherapy is in many ways, another sandbox game.  There really is no way to win in it.  The office becomes a setting for a potential space that can be shaped and altered by the patient and something new created.  Psychotherapy is also an uncanny space, one that resembles the world outside the office and yet does not.  It is a place for “everything that ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light.”  Within that space, the patient experiences hauntings by ghostly relationships from the past, encounters the internal monsters of the drives, and explores the wishes behind their secret injurious powers.  Unexplored and avoided, these have calcified into symptoms, and the anxious, exciting, process of therapy helps the patient break down that calcification for a more flexible psyche.

Any child or gamer knows that play is a serious and dangerous business.  There is always the risk of annihilation, and no place worth going to doesn’t have its hazards.  But there are great treasures to be found in the game.  Further, the emotional and intellectual changes encountered within the game can then be taken out of it into the daily life of the gamer.  This is one of the reasons that video games are so compelling.  Why else would people spend hours making houses out of pixel bricks?

Both psychotherapy and video games create very real thought and feeling states in people, and that is part of their curative power.  In this book I hope I have shown that they can restore a sense of purpose and achievement that our patients have lost.  I have discussed how they can help people stay connected with others over great distances in times of duress, help us feel the sense of achievement necessary to learn and change behaviors, and explore aspects of their personalities that may be less easily seen or developed in their daily lives.  I have also explored how we can use the experience and metaphors from video games with patients to help them understand ego defenses, communication patterns and strategies that impact their relationships, and apply game mechanics to their lives to change them.  I have tried to discuss the stigmatization of gamers and technology in terms of diversity, in particular social class.  Finally, I hope I have shown how therapists can apply the principles from video games and gamification to impact both their clinical work and business skills.

All of this pales in comparison to doing the actual work, and by this I mean two things.  The first and most obvious one is the practice of psychotherapy.  Theory is a necessary but insufficient precursor to clinical practice and healing.  The second piece of actual work will be for the therapist to begin playing some video games.  Reading is not the same as doing, and it is only by entering the uncanny and enriching world of the video game that therapists can hope to truly understand them.  Never has play been more important in our work, and never has understanding video games been more urgent in healing the world.  To do so we need to rethink our attitudes and reconsider our biases towards gaming and technology.

It’s time to reset.

Gamer Therapist is on vacation, so we’ll see you in two weeks!  In the meantime, please vote for our minecraft panel at SXSW!

Like this post? There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book. I can rant in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.  Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!

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.

Like this post? There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book. I can rant in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.
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