What Do Gamers & Social Workers Have In Common?

The Dutch cultural theorist and early scholar of ludic studies Johan Huizinga took play very seriously.  Gamers and Social Workers alike would have loved Johan–he spoke out against Nazism and German influence on Dutch Science in 1942 at a lecture he gave.  This was not the first time he had done so.  As early as 1935 he had grown alarmed at the rise of fascism and written, “We live in a demened world, and we know it.”  By 1942, his speaking truth to power had finally gone too far in Nazi estimations, and he was imprisoned, then detained, by the Nazis in the village of De Steeg.  He died there 3 years later.

It was during these final years of his life that he refined and wrote his book, Homo Ludens, which translates to “Man the Player.”  In this book he explored the serious nature of play as a cultural phenomenon present in art, war, and politics.

Huizinga determined that play has 5 essential elements, to which I add examples as appropriate to gaming and/or social work:

  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom. When we are playing, we are not doing it for any other reason than that we want to.  Play to be play must be a voluntary activity that we initiate or accept the invitation to enter into ourselves.  In that regard you could say that play is always an assertion of the self, and free will.  We gamers choose to spend our time gaming, choose one game over the other.  This is why gaming as play does not adhere to the slavish concept of addiction.
  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life. What makes play so much fun, and so important is specifically that is isn’t bounded by the realities of daily living.  It is pretend, and extraordinary, and it allows us to escape real life.  But this is exactly why gamers and other people who play aren’t psychotic.  We may talk about the games we play to lengths that bore or disturb others, but we know that games are apart from real life.  That’s what makes them fun!  I may hurl arcane energy at a dragon in WoW, but I am aware (albeit sadly at times) that if I ever encounter a dragon in real life I will not be able to summon magic at my whim to destroy it.  And that is why Second Life is not called First Life.  For play to be play, we have to know we are taking ourselves out of the real world to participate in something else.
  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration. When I get ready to play WoW,  I sit down or stand at my computer; but when I play I am in Azeroth.  Whether it is chess, poker or a video game, the play experience takes place in another time and space, and it has a beginning and an end.  Even MMORPGs, which push the last quality in some ways, have an end for individual players, when we cease participating in the game world for the time being and resume the activities of daily living that await us in the real world.
  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme. By this Huizinga meant that for play to work it needs to have rules as well as time and space boundaries.  We all know how to play Hide and Seek, the next time you play it try being the “Seeker” and go hide along with everyone else; or come out of hiding and start chasing the Seeker.  Bizarre and funny, but the game won’t be Hide and Seek anymore–Tag, maybe, but then we’ll know that something has fundamentally changed.  And in World of Warcraft everyone needs the same amount of experience points to get to level 80, and we expect the griffin flight paths to always stop in the same places.  Wizards will never wear plate mail and hunters can’t teleport.  That’s just the way things are, that’s the order of things.
  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it. Ask any gold farmer around the world, and they will tell you that there is a big difference between playing WoW and logging in to the game to make and then sell money.  Gold selling can’t even happen entirely in-game, and Blizzard bans it for good reason.  It’s cheating, not serious play.  The loot items that I “get” in the game aren’t things I can profit from in the real world.  I can’t take my Corp’rethar Ceremonial Crown with me when I leave the game, which is why I would be so useless if a dragon shows up in Harvard Square.  And although Second Life has a different approach, allowing you to buy in-world “Lindens” for real-world monies, I’d suggest that the act of buying the Lindens occurs outside the play experience:  Sigmund Steampunk isn’t buying Lindens, Mike is buying Lindens “out here” and sending them to Sigmund “in there.”

So what’s all this got to do with gamers and social workers?  Lots!  Both gamers and social workers value freedom a great deal for starters.  And social workers (I am saying social workers, but this applies to all psychotherapists) understand that therapy, like gaming, is a form of play.  We experience more freedom to explore and express our internal world in therapy.  It happens at a given time and place, even as an online event.  What happens inside the therapy, a la Winnicott’s “Transitional Phenomenon,”  is both alike and different from the “real world.”  And there is order in therapy, some firm rules and limits in terms of what can or should happen in it.

As for the money bit, I would suggest that if we lived in a culture where capitalism was not the norm, the same parts of therapy that are so powerful and rewarding, the play-elements, would still be as powerful.  Another way of looking at this is to ask yourself if you conduct therapy any differently with patients who are on Medicaid than those who are private pay?  I’m not talking about feeling annoyed that you aren’t getting paid well, but the game you play.  Do you only think psychodynamically with your private patients?  Do you change the boundaries when its Medicaid?  Or do you try your best to do what’s best for each patient regardless of the payment?

And as social workers, don’t you advocate for others with the powers that be in ways that are not connected with your material interest?  Take Civil Rights, for example.  The years and years of advocating, protesting and legislating are not something that the social workers involved derived a profit from.  In fact that is what makes our endurance in fighting for social justice so admirable.

This is why many gamers will make excellent social workers, by the way.  Gamers are experts at endurance.  That guy in your office that seems like a “slacker” actually has more in common with you than you think.  He has spent hours trying to down the Lich King–trying and failing, and then trying again.  He has spent hours researching strategies to work as part of a team and not given up.  Jane McGonigal pointed out recently on NPR that majority of time gamers are online, they are failing to accomplish their tasks.  That’s why it is so admirable that they keep at it.   So yes the adolescent you’re sitting with may have grades that are plummeting in school, but don’t blame the games!  Try instead to harness that discipline, focus and stamina by exploring how it shows up in-game, and then how it can be used to change his real life.

And the connection between gaming and social justice isn’t as far-fetched as you may think:  A 2009 Pew presentation from Amanda Lenhart showed that 49% of teen gamers reported seeing people being “hateful, racist or sexist” while playing– which means that they can identify hate, sexism and racism.  What’s more, three-quarters of these kids reported seeing other players regularly respond to such behavior to confront it.  That’s a hell of a lot better than most high schools and college campuses are doing these days!

So gamers and social workers both understand the value and seriousness of play, as an imagined space in therapy or in Azeroth.  Gamers and social workers both understand the value of psychic change and social activism.  And gamers and social workers alike regularly demonstrate hard work and stamina in the face of dragons and fascism.

Johan Huizinga would be proud.