Skyrim Family Values


In psychotherapy we have grown to have a narrow definition of what it means to prescribe something.  Most of us think of prescription in terms of medication, however if we take this definition, you’ll see why I often prescribe video games:


  1. (of a medical practitioner) Advise and authorize the use of (a medicine or treatment) for someone, esp. in writing.
  2. Recommend (a substance or action) as something beneficial.

(Google, Transmitted from, 2013)

I have mentioned before my assertion that video games are among other things models of the world, that must both resemble and be distinct from the world to be effective.  Sometimes they are models that present dystopian worlds, and other times they model how things could be if we set aside some of our differences.

The game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is such a game, and one I recommend that therapists who work with a diverse range of families familiarize themselves with.  Like other prescriptions it does have some effects that need to be considered carefully before recommending it to patients.  It is rated M by the ERSB, which is characterized as  “MATURE: Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.”  For parents who are very concerned with violence in video games, this one has a range of it:  Set in a quasi-Nordic society, it contains the brutality one would expect there, including a decapitation in the first 10 minutes of the game’s opening.

So what on earth am I thinking in recommending it?

Last week the U.S. and the Supreme Court engaged in public deliberation on Proposition 8 in CA, the repeal of DOMA, and the question of what makes a marriage, and by extension, a family.  As the debate unfolded, the statistics reported indicated that the court of public opinion had already reached a majority about the subject.  The Washington Post reported that 58% of Americans favored gay marriage, the highest percentage of our citizens yet.  And in the Supreme Court, Justice Kennedy raised this:

He was alluding to children of parents in same-sex relationships, some of whom are biological offspring, but a substantial number of others who are adopted.  Adopted children often experience marginalization by virtue of their adoptive status, which can in itself be stigmatizing in a world which often give genetics primacy over nurturance.  But the child who is adopted by same-sex parents often faces a double whammy in a world where their family system goes unrecognized if not persecuted.

I’d like to think that at least part of the change in public opinion on gay marriage and families is due to Skyrim.  The video game from its inception has allowed for quest lines that culminate in your proposal, wedding, and marriage to a partner who can either be the same or different sex.  If your character is female and you ask another female character to get married, your experience is one of acceptance.  Later you get married in a ceremony celebrated and witnessed by several people in your community.  Still later you set up house together, and have the experience so many of us have craved, coming home to someone who loves you after a hard days work (or dragon-slaying as the case may be.)  As of last July, 10 million copies of the game had been sold worldwide, so it is not unreasonable to imagine that a large number of these found their way into the homes and minds of U.S. gamers.  So let’s not give Will and Grace all the credit.

When working with patients from adoptive and/or same-sex families, Skyrim can be a valuable resource in providing a model of a world where adoption and gay marriage are accepted and treated with little fanfare as part of life.  Families can use the game as a launch pad for discussion about what makes a family.  Perhaps more importantly, kids, adolescents and adults can enjoy hours of gameplay in a world that celebrates marriage diversity and the family of adoption.  It’s by no means a perfect world, but the benefits of such a video game may outweigh the concerns about gore.  I can tell you that what I hear discussed eagerly by players is not how cool the gore is, but rather how neat it is to be able to be adopted or marry who you want.

Think about how often parents wish their children could understand them better.  Now  your child has the opportunity to imagine themselves choosing a child as they were chosen.  Imagine a LGBTQ adolescent being able to experience choosing to marry who they want regardless of sex.  And imagine a straight person seeing that they aren’t always what “normal” has to look like.  Not medication, but a powerful prescription for what often ails our patients, and our nation.

And then, as I was preparing to write this post, I was bitten by a vampire.

Another common occurrence in the world of Skyrim is encountering a vampire.  In my case, without choosing to, I had been bitten, and within a few days of game play, people in Skyrim began to notice.  At first the shopkeepers would tell me I looked pale.  A day or so later I was told by the guards that I had a hungry look in my eye.  Finally, when my vampirism was no longer concealable everyone turned hostile.  I couldn’t enter any city, including my hometown without being attacked, both verbally and physically.  No matter that I hadn’t hurt anyone yet, I was forced to sneak around everywhere.  I felt frustrated and victimized.  It was a powerful lesson in ostracism.

I wish I could assign Skyrim to every one of my social work students studying diversity and racism.  The game provides a model of a world which provides you with the experience of tremendous acceptance and empowerment, as well as hatred and stigma.  It also shows us models of love and families which we have yet to embrace sufficiently in the United States of America.

There are  38 children in Skyrim who could be parented by a same-sex couple, in CA there are some 40,000 who have been.  In our nation as a whole an estimated 65,000 adopted children are being raised by same-sex parents.  We risk raising a portion of these, our future population, to feel ashamed, marginalized and flawed.

We can do better.


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Avatars & The Curated Self

If I ever meet James Cameron, I hope I will remember to ask him if it was a coincidence that he chose to the make the aliens blue.  His movie, Avatar, garnered 3 Academy Awards for it’s epic tale of humanity’s encounter with the Na’Vi, largely through the creation of avatars, body forms that humans beam their consciousness into so they can mingle and fraternize with the locals.

The concept of the avatar comes originally from Hinduism, and refers to the concept of a God or Supreme Being deliberately descending to earth in a manifest form.  One of the most popular gods for doing this is Vishnu, also blue.  The concept of avatar in  Hinduism is more complicated than this, but the piece of it that pertains to this post is the general concept of the attempt of a supreme being to incarnate part of itself to enter the world.  There is an inherent diminution or derivative quality to it.

If you are more familiar with video games than Hinduism, you are probably more familiar with the concept of an avatar meaning the graphical representation of the player’s character in the game.  When we play Pac-Man, our avatar manifests in the video game as a little yellow circle with a mouth that races around gobbling dots.  Over the decades games and graphics have become capable of more sophisticated avatars ranging from the Viking-like Nords of Skyrim to the soldiers of Call Of Duty.  As these video game worlds proliferate, players descend into them with avatars of many shapes, sizes and species.  Some games, like Eve Online, allow you to customize the features of your avatar extensively; others allow you to pick from a limited number.  We are always diminished by the process of taking on an avatar.  Even if the powers an avatar has in the video game world are immense, it is derivative of the complexity of being human.

What is interesting is that most of us use avatars every day online, we just never realize it.  Video games are just one form of social media, and avatars abound in all of them.  The graphic may be as simple as our picture next to a blog post or comment, or a video on Youtube.  But in the 21st century most of us are digital citizens and use one form of avatar or another.  Some people in the world will only ever know us through our avatar in a video game or Second Life.  And yet we know something of each other.

I think more and more of us are becoming aware of the connection between the avatar and the curated self, the aspects of our psychological self we choose to represent online.  The curated self is the part of ourselves we have some ability to shape, by what we disclose, what graphics we choose, and how we respond to others.  Like an avatar, the curated self at its best is deliberate.  I say at its best, because although the curated self is in our care, we can also be careless with it.

Recently I posted a video of myself on my YouTube channel entitled “Should Therapists & Social Workers Post Videos Of Themselves On YouTube?”  In making the video I chose to wear a bike helmet, and by the end of the post was using the bike helmet as an example of the risks we take when we opt to attempt innovation of our curated self.  The video was designed to inspire critical discussion and thinking, and it did just that.  In some groups where it appeared people described the video and points it was illustrating as “brilliant.”  Other groups interpreted it as an instructional video on how to advertise your therapy practice and lambasted it.  There was a myriad of responses, and I’m sure even more from people who opted not to comment on it.  I received a number of likes of it, and a number of dislikes.

What I think is important and instructional here was how people began to comment through their avatars as if they were addressing the whole person I am rather than an avatar.  And they made incorrect assumptions ranging from my age to my motives.  The bike helmet and my posture on the video became the target for some incredible nastiness disguised as constructive criticism.  From the safety of their own avatars they hurled some invectives at who they thought I was and what they thought I was doing in front of an audience of other avatars who alternately joined in, were silent, emailed me privately to offer words of support, or publicly commented on what they saw.  The irony to me was that people began to demonstrate all of the roles we encounter in “cyberbullying,” which was part of what the video also touched on.  In a perhaps not surpising parallel process, we got to see and play out the sorts of dynamics that our patients and children experience all the time.

We need to remember that every avatar is a derivative of the person.  It is connected enough that we have attachments and responses to it.  We can feel proud or ashamed, hurt or healed through our avatars.  In fact, research from Nick Yee on “The Proteus Effect” has shown that playing a game with a powerful avatar for 90 seconds can give the player increased self-confidence that persists for up to 6 hours.  It stands to reason that if someone experiences their avatar as weak or socially unacceptable for a brief time there may be lasting effects as well.  Behind the guy in a bike helmet is someone else.  He may be a faculty member at Harvard, a sensitive fellow, a father, a student, a man who just lost his partner, a person with a criminal record, or any, all or none of these.  But he is always more than the derivative of his avatar.  We need to practice being mindful of this and model it as we train others to be digital citizens.  It is counterproductive to sound off on cyberbullying to our children or grandchildren, when they can Google us online and see us doing it ourselves.

We also need to help our patients, their families, and colleagues understand the active role we need to take in curating ourselves online.  We need to understand what may happen when we put certain things out there.  For therapists this includes the dilemma of putting out a curated self that resembles what kind of work you would do, while not disclosing or conveying more than you want the world to know.  The example I always use with students and consultees is how I talk about my family but never who they are in particular.  This is deliberate, because it is no big disclosure that I have a family, everyone on the planet has one of sorts with the possible exception of Dolly the cloned sheep.  But beyond that I curate a private self, and let folks project what they may.  If we put out comments describing patients or coleagues as “screwed up,” we are also curating ourself, I suggest poorly.  We need to be mindful that most groups we participate online in are open and searchable.  Many of my colleagues became therapists at least in part because they didn’t want to be known and thought the best defense was a good offense (“We’re here to talk about you, not me.”)  They’re used to sharing the gallows humor with the team, and think the same applies to online.  I’m with Rilke on this one:  “for here there is no place/that does not see you. You must change your life.”

To paraphrase Wittgenstein, “our self is everything that is the case,”  not just one avatar, blog, string of emails or video; not even the composite of all of them.  Nor is our curated self everything that is the case.  We’re more than our Facebook likes or our Twitter following.  Human beings are so much more, much more wondrous and tragic than the curated self.  We descend into the Internet and are diminished, but do bring some deliberate part of ourselves along.  We will only ever know hints and glimmers of ourselves and each other online.  As for the rest:

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” –Wittgenstein


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The Uses of Disenchantment

Magic fulfills the wish that we could have powers to be beyond who we sadly suspect we are. As children, magic explains the inexplicable nature of external forces (i.e. parents, teachers, death) and internal ones (unconscious drives, nameless attachments, inconsolable sorrows and consuming rages.)

Anyone who plays WoW, Elder Scrolls, or Dungeons & Dragons, knows that enchanted weapons and armor are valuable items to be gotten. They raise our stats, make us stronger, more intelligent agile, or resistant to harm. They fulfill the wish that we could be more than we are.

That being the case, the profession of Enchanting is a very valuable one to master. To do so is to be able to craft our own items for use or to sell. And to master the skill requires not only enchanting practice, but also the act of disenchantment.

Disenchantment is the breaking down of an enchanted item into its component reagents. In Skyrim this consists of taking the enchanted item and destroying it, which allows you to discover the enchantment. So, for example, if you come across an Iron Battleaxe of Scorching, you have a choice. You can enjoy your new battleaxe which will add fire damage to the physical damage you do using it. Or you can disenchant it, and learn how to imbue any weapon with the ability to do fire damage.

In World of Warcraft disenchanting items is necessary to provide you with the reagents, or raw materials, to do other enchantments. Learning the enchantment is done separately, by training or reading a recipe, but disenchantment is still necessary to break down enchanted items into components you can use for other enchantments. Enchantment operates in the domain of creation and destruction, attachment and loss. I can remember feeling many the hesitation as I was about to take an Epic staff I’d used for months and dissolve into Abyss Crystals. Even though I knew that I was going to get a new weapon with a strong enchantment out of it, disenchantment required sacrafice.

Many patients labor under the illusion that the purpose of therapy is to make you feel good. I have always maintained that that is not true. Therapy is not about making you feel good, but rather about learning how to not to feel good. It’s about learning how to experience and tolerate those unpleasant feelings in a different way than we’ve learned to previously. People abuse substances, food, sex, and yes, occasionally video games because they cannot tolerate feelings that don’t feel “good.” Who wants to feel inconsolable sorrow, thwarted passion, grief, terror, or hopelessness?

And so people come to us wanting symptom reduction, not character building; relief, not the raising of unmentionable wishes and fears to consciousness. At first, we often provide those other things to be sure. A compassionate ear to listen, a calming influence, a holding environment. But in the end, therapists are alchemists and enchanters: Nothing new can be created by our patients without something being destroyed. Something must be given up to create something else.

Consider this: Neurosis is like an enchanted armor that we can no longer use. Maybe we have outgrown it. Maybe it never really fit well but it was the best compromise we could come up with. Maybe it buffed up our strength stats when we really needed more intelligence to play our class effectively. For whatever reason, it is no longer helping us, in fact it has created distress.

Symptom reduction alone won’t solve this problem. It may alleviate our distress for the moment, relieve pain enough to create the “space” between feeling and behavior so that we can begin to do the longer-term work.

That’s where disenchantment comes in. We need to take the item, the neurotic conflict, and break it down into the components that create it. What is the wish and the worry? What causes the guilt? Just what are we so afraid of that we can’t look at it directly?

This doesn’t always have to be painful, and therapists shouldn’t use this as a justification for brutality. But to think that the process of therapy is not going to be uncomfortable and difficult; is not going to take some time and hard work is pretty much delusional. If our enchantments could have gotten us any farther we wouldn’t have given them up. Most addicts and alcoholics would have used longer if they could have. If they could have enjoyed one more binge, party or high, they would have.

Insurance companies love to focus on symptom reduction, and a narrow view of what evidence-based treatment really is. Symptoms are problems to be solved, rather than signposts pointing towards underlying issues. And although this is short-sighted, it is understandable: 10 sessions costs a lot less than weekly sessions. And yet, the most recent research I’ve read indicates that psychodynamic therapy is as effective as CBT and other therapies, and in fact more effective in sustaining longterm change.

Bruno Bettelheim, a psychoanalytic thinker, is perhaps best known for his book The Uses of Enchantment. In it he discusses how the themes of fairy tales often symbolize the real emotional and psychological struggles that children go through. Through the projections of stories, children are able to work through their fears in remote and tolerable ways. In a similar way, Klein speaks of the paranoid-schizoid position where the parent is split into good and bad objects, the fairy godmothers and evil witches of fairy tales.

Disenchantment, from a Kleinian lens, leads to the depressive position. It is where we hopefully get to, despite the depressing name, that point when we realize that people are not either all-good, or all-bad, but both good and bad, nurturing and depriving, gratifying and frustrating. In other words, human. The world seems less magical in some ways, and that is experienced as a loss. Sounds depressing, eh? So what is gained?

There is a practice in Tibetan Buddhism called tonglen. In this form of meditation, you begin by touching the tender spot of whatever is sorrowing or distressing to you. Say you’ve lost your loved one. Allow yourself to feel that grief for a moment, really feel it. What an awful wrenching feeling that is. You may reflect that nobody should have to feel what you’re feeling right now. And yet, all over the world, there are those who have felt that, may be feeling it even as you are right now. So you breathe in, and imagine breathing in all of that grief as if for that moment you could take it into your heart so that nobody else would have to feel it. And then you imagine yourself breathing out comfort and security and everything that is the opposite of grief and suffering to the world and to all those in it who need it. You reverse the cycle of trying to avoid pain and grasp pleasure, and in doing so generate compassion.

That is the use of disenchantment; breaking down our fantasies that we can avoid pain and transmuting it into compassion for others. Imagine if you were to really accept that everyone is human and fallible and mortal. If you were able to walk around tomorrow and remain conscious that everyone you meet is dying, would you treat them in the same way as you did today?

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How To Have An Epic Holiday With Your Child Or Teen & Video Games

As I write this, those of us in the US have 4 shopping days until Christmas.  So I wanted to share a few tips on both games to consider but also how to connect with the gamer in your life during this time of year:

1. Play with your child.  If it is a multiplayer game, join in.  If it is a single-player, ask to take a turn.

2. Sit and watch your child play, and ask them to teach you how to play a game.

3. For adolescents, don’t take no for an answer.  If they don’t want to show you how to play at that time, make an “appointment” with them for later.

4. Encourage boys and girls equally.  A recent study showed that girls who play video games with their fathers endorse fewer symptoms of depression.  Ask your children if there are different games they like.

5. Remember that multiplayer games are forms of social media and community.  Your child may be having a chat while they are playing without you even knowing it.  Be patient with them and ask if you are interrupting something.  This is good training for when they are interrupting you.  Remember social skills are a two-way street, and just because you don’t think something is important doesn’t mean they feel the same way.

6. Pay attention to ESRB ratings.  They aren’t perfect, but they can give you a good idea of what ages and levels of maturity are the best fit for your child.

7. Vet the online community.  If they want to join a server for Minecraft, search together for one that requires children apply and requires parental approval.  Ask the adult moderators questions about what kind of activities and conversations happen in-world.  Discuss how privacy is handled.

8. Sit with your child as they sign up for a game.  Discuss whether they should answer questions about where they live and their age.  If these are required, email the moderator if you don’t feel comfortable with that.  Your child’s digital footprint starts here, and will last for decades to come, so be careful and thoughtful about it.

9.  That said, don’t evoke a sense of anxiety and paranoia with your children.  There are plenty of normal or healthy people online, and they may be making lifelong friends.  If they want to chat or Skype with peers, don’t forbid it, but ask to have a brief introductory call with their parent, and have a week probationary period where all chat is audible before the headphones go on.

10.  Have fun!  Video games can improve your mood, sharpen your wits and fine motor skills, and even give you exercise.  But the most benefit for you and your child will occur if you take an interest and try to play yourself.

Ok, so now for some suggestions.  This is by no means exhaustive, and if you want to recommend others please comment below!

Multiplayer Games

These can often have a subscription, but sometimes they are free.  A good family game for younger children is Wizard101, which takes place in a world of wizard schools and magic duels.  Combat is turn-based card game style.  If your children like Magic:  The Gathering, chances are they’ll love this.

Another great one is Minecraft, which costs a one-time price of $26.99.  The game allows no end of possibilities, from mining to building to exploring to killing monsters.  If you join a multiplayer, the whole family can play together.

World of Warcraft is a perennial favorite of mine.  In addition to buying the software, this game has a monthly subscription, and there are lots of servers to choose from.  Try searching for child-friendly servers and guilds, there are plenty of them out there.

Eve Online is a MMO that takes place in outer space.  If your family is more interested in building and flying spaceships than fighting dragons this may be the game for them.  Like WoW there is a monthly subscription in addition to the software purchase.

Console Games

For your older gamers I recommend Dark Souls.  This is a very challenging game, which players can expect to last for hours.  There will be lots of dying and starting over, and lots of fun failure.  This game also has a strong RPG element and a dark mood.

Not quite as dark, but very challenging, is the new Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.  This game puts you in a Nordic-type environment as a “Dragonborn,” and the main quest has you fighting dragons and absorbing their powers.  But the fun thing about this game is that you don’t have to do any one quest if you don’t want to.  Players can focus on exploring, crafting, learning marriage or picking locks!  The graphics are beautiful, and the music is fun too.

If you are more interested in a game with a puzzle-solving element, check out Portal 2.  You wake up in an abandoned lab with only a wormhole gun to your name.  In order to escape players will need to strategize and learn a lot about physics on the way.  There’s a lot of fun humor in the game as well.

All of the above games are available for Xbox, PS3 and the PC.

For Xbox, you can also bring a bit of meditation to the family with Deepak Chopra’s Leela.  This game uses the Kinnect, and you’ll your whole body playing games to both actively exercise and stimulate the chakras or energy centers in the body; or meditate and keep an eye on your posture.  The game is easy to learn and very colorful, and you can even design your own mandala.

Also for the Kinnect and PS3 is Child of Eden.  This full body game has you trying to same the AI Lumi from a computer virus.  It’s a fast-moving game with some rocking music from the virtual band Genki Rockets.

As far as the Wii goes, there’s only one I want to recommend at the moment, and that’s Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.  This latest addition to the classic Zelda series will take you back to history before the Ocarina of Time, and up into the clouds of Skyloft, as you help Link take wing to save his kidnapped friend Zelda.


Last but not least I want to direct your attention to a couple of games on the iPad.  Infinity Blade II.  This game is not for the faint of heart, there is a lot of melee combat, and a lot of dying.  If you like swordplay and battling monsters this is the game for you.  The world is 3D and dynamic, and there are lots of different weapons and armors to try.  Be warned, there is an option to “buy” more gold, so have a talk with your child about whether and how to do that.

A more playful game for all ages is Windosill from Vectorpark.  This is a short game, but the dreamlike quality and graphics make it feel more like having fallen into a picture book than playing a video game.  Get your whimsy on with this one.

These are only some suggestions, and are based on games I have test-driven.  For example, I haven’t recommended any Nintendo DS games because I haven’t played any lately.  I’m not affiliated with any of the above companies.  Have some other game suggestions?  Let us know below.  Have a great holiday!

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Skyrim, Stealing & Sadism

If you have been a therapist for at least, oh, say three months, you’ve probably had a conversation with a patient who steals. Sometimes it is mandated counseling as a result of a criminal charge or EAP referral; sometimes it is the confession of shoplifting. But if you haven’t talked about stealing yet, chances are you haven’t asked.

Stealing is always a metaphor and enactment. It may be other things as well, a means of survival, an indication of impulse control: But for the patient it always means something consciously, preconsciously or unconsciously. (If you don’t believe in the existence of the unconscious, why are you reading my blog?? No good can come of it.. 🙂 ) Sometimes the stealing is a symbolic expression of the desire to possess something that one feels was stolen from one: for example, a survivor of sexual abuse who steals toys to express the experience that her childhood was stolen. Sometimes it is to express the fear of being deprived; for example someone who steals and hoards food or clothing. I’m sure you could come up with plenty of examples, but let’s move on and discuss it in terms of narcissistic rage.

The difference between anger and narcissistic rage, according to some psychoanalytic thinkers like Kohut, is time and revenge. If a situation makes one angry, it usually has a short time span, and little to no accompanying desire for revenge. If a narcissistic injury occurs, the accompanying rage can last for a lifetime, as can the accompanying desire to have vengeance upon the person responsible. We experience both forms of feeling in our lives, and I’d say they’re different rather than better or worse for someone. And both are very useful sources of information about a patient’s inner world.

Skyrim is the latest video game in the Elder Scrolls series. This much-anticipated game has shipped 7 million copies worldwide its first week garnering $450M. Within the first 24 hours 280,000 PC players were downloading it, and within 48 hours Bethesda reported 3.5 million copies sold. It is looking to be one of the most popular video games this holiday season, if not Game of the Year.

Skyrim is a single-player game, not an MMO, but one of the things that makes it impressive is its scope, which is closer to MMO games than traditional single-player games. It has an immense game world, the province of Skyrim, and has an open-ended quality to it, in that you can play the game to your heart’s content without ever completing the main quest line. There is a main story, but you can choose to ignore it, and focus on doing other things. There are side-quests to train at Mage or Bard College, there are achievements to unlock and crafts like mining and smithing to learn.

And then there is stealing.

In Skyrim, there are lots of things lying around for you to take. If they are in a cavern or the world at large they are usually loot. But go inside someone’s shop or inn and you’ll see in red the option to steal them. If you do steal something, you may get caught or not. You may get caught and persuade the guard to let you go. You may get thrown in jail and forced to pay bail. Or you may get killed. The same applies to any lockpicking you do to break and enter someone’s real estate.

The more you steal, the higher the bounty on your head in each city gets. And each city has its own record of your crimes, meaning you can have a different reputation in each city. In fact, if your do enough criminal activity, the Thieves Guild, an invite-only thieves guild, may recruit you.

Not every video game allows for stealing, and by now some of you may be asking, “Why would anyone want to play a video game where they steal things?” Good question, let’s not dismiss this phenomenon: This game is 5th in a popular series which has consistently allowed theft in the game world, and developers don’t create and keep dynamics that nobody wants or plays. But to return to my earlier assertion that stealing is always a metaphor and enactment, we can begin to see the importance of asking our gamer patients about it in the particular, i.e., “What makes you steal in Skyrim?”

One of the advantages to taking a gamer-affirmative approach with patients who play video games is that you look at the video game as meaningful, rather than as merely a symptom or pathology. Once you do that the questioning loses it’s dismissive tone, and can become a useful part of the treatment. Why does the patient or gamer steal in Skyrim? Are they acting out a loss? Are they trying on a new way of being in the world? Or are they allowing some part of themselves to be expressed in the game that they try to hide from themselves in real life?

For example, did one of Skyrim’s NPCs with their Schwarzenegger accent say something insulting to you when you went in their shop? Maybe the fact that they sound like Schwarzenneger means something to you, and you like the idea of taking some tough bodybuilder down a peg. If you feel slighted, and steal from the innkeeper to “teach them a lesson,” this is an example of narcissistic rage. Having seen this in the game, can you begin to see any connections with people in your world outside the game whom you’ve felt insulted by, whom you wish you could teach a lesson?

It is often easier to look at our sadism and our narcissistic rage in the symbolism and displacement of a dream or art. Video games, which are social media and art forms with elements of dreams, are rife with opportunities to do this. The gamer-affirmative therapist can ask if your stealing to become noticed and recruited by the Dark Brotherhood might have any connection to the rage you feel that the girls/women/boys/men in your life only seem attracted to “jerks,” not “nice guys” like you. Or do other interesting (to a therapist) patterns emerge? Do you only steal from male NPCs? Do you ever regret stealing? Does whether you steal during gameplay depend on your mood that day? Do you think it is wrong to steal from the NPC? Why or why not?

Therapists: Don’t take the excuse, “it is only a game,” because any gamer knows, in fact we all know on some level, that play is not meaningless. You don’t accidentally steal, ok wait, scratch that–you can inadvertently click on something and steal it in Skyrim, and then all hell breaks loose. But if it was an accident, did you feel anything after it happened? Do you do it again? What does this say about your learning style, or repetition compulsion?

And sometimes, people steal in Skyrim to experience a conscious, guiltless pleasure and awareness of their own sadism. In video games, like in all fantasy, we get to do things we’d never do in real life, and enjoy them. If you’re recoiling at the idea of taking a loaf of bread from a little girl in a video game, stop and reflect: Might you have an overactive superego? Might you be splitting off and disowning some sadism here? Or was Oscar Wilde wrong when he said, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

There is a reason why the Germans have the word Schadenfreude in their vocabulary: There is something archetypal about taking joy in the suffering of others. In real life it can be more problematic than satisfying for us, or it can be an ethical dilemma. But in fantasy and in psychotherapy, exploration of sadism is often meaningful and important.

Gamers might worry that talking about the joy they experience stealing from or even killing characters in Skyrim will have adverse effects on them. In one direction, you may worry that exploring these fantasies and the satisfaction you feel might demystify and ruin the game for you. I doubt that will happen, understanding the meaning of an unconscious fantasy doesn’t have to spoil the fantasy, in fact it might enrich it. Or you may worry that talking about these fantasies will be trivialized or pathologized by your psychotherapist. To that I say, if they do, perhaps it is time for you to get a new one.

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