What I Learned at Pax East.

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

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

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

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

They took me seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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