The Gaming Mind: A New Psychology of Videogames and the Power of Play by Alexander Kriss

The Gaming Mind: A New Psychology of Videogames and the Power of PlayThe Gaming Mind: A New Psychology of Videogames and the Power of Play by Alexander Kriss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a review copy of this from the publisher The Experiment through NetGalley, published previously in the UK with the title Universal Play: How Videogames Tell Us Who We Are and Show Us Who We Could Be. Though I finished it quickly, a little more than a week ago, I’ve been struggling a bit with “reviewer’s block”. Several non-book related and one that is particular to the copy I received (for which I am grateful): I couldn’t highlight anything on the secure PDF except the watermark, and that is a hindrance. I understand and respect digital rights, but I’ve had many others that would let me copy at least highlight the text on the page, if not copy it for the review. It makes deciphering my notes more difficult and that will unfortunately end up being an unintentional disservice to the author. Anyway, in his Preface, Kriss says his goal with the book was to “defang” videogames and psychotherapy. I’m not sure if he achieved that for the latter, but I do think he made good points with respect to the former. His age shouldn’t necessarily be a factor, but it bears thinking about. He drops hints, such as he was around 16 when he started therapy for a personal issue and playing Silent Hill 2, which came out in 2001; that would make him 35ish. He grew up in a world with video games…for some of us, and I presume not an insignificant number of his fellow therapists, that is a more recent intrusion, development, bounty, …take your pick of meaning. And he plays. It wouldn’t be credible to comment (write a book) on a subject with which one has little to no direct experience. Many do so, and they are, well, not as credible.

I have admitted many times that I don’t seem to have the gene that finds obscure meaning in a movie scene, or a book section, even a classical, baroque, romantic period musical composition. Even when something is explained to me (“did you see that the director was trying to indicate…?”, to be shockingly confirmed by the director’s comments on the disc extras), sometimes it has a hard time registering. Kriss explained the premise behind Silent Hill 2 and the psychology involved with the different approaches to the gameplay. He asks, “What kind of player got to see ‘In Water’?” ‘In Water’ is a non-“normal” ending to the game. What kind of player? Okay, I am not the target audience. Sounds like he’s describing real characteristics and not game play. Sure, I know people can get embedded (I have seen first hand such in my sons’ Dungeons and Dragons sessions), but I have a hard time grasping that. Kriss continues, “Most of all, the player who was comfortable existing close to death was the one who recognised the inconsequential nature of playing a videogame. No actual harm could come to him – he was not James [the game character] and James was not real, so compassion or care for this avatar’s well-being was unnecessary.” Again, fully admit not the target audience. Those thoughts would never occur to me. Seems if I do play a game, I just play it. I’m less invested. Some 25 years ago, my oldest my oldest son, eight at the time, asked his visiting uncle to play a Nintendo game with him. I was taken aback at the response: “Okay, but my hand eye coordination isn’t the best right now”. I guess by recalling that, I still am.

Kriss alternates between personal experiences with games, experience (by permission) of his patients, and the approaches of psychotherapy to problems related directly or indirectly to gaming. He talks about the elephant in the room – violence, and addiction, health, group interactions (multiplayer), and throughout, part of the subtitle to his book, the Power of Play.

Selected takeaways…

Kriss says

Say your favourite book is The Once and Future King by T. H. White (good choice!). [Mine might be The Lord of the Rings or Dune] Its humour and humanity forever altered the way you think about the power of old stories to inform contemporary problems. Perhaps you first read the novel during a difficult time in your life and its worn pages still bring you comfort in times of need.
Now imagine trying to explain your relationship with The Once and Future King to a person who has never read a book before, indeed has made a point of avoiding even reading about books.[…]
You can picture the scepticism on his face when you say that White’s Arthurian epic changed your life. […] He is shocked to learn, for instance, the The Once and Future King is structured as a narrative…

Even someone who can be as obtuse in some things as me saw what was coming…

This is how it can feel to try to talk about videogames with those who have little experience with then…

You know? He has a point. {raises hand} More than once I’ve heard from my sons of plots and story arcs to games that to me seem to be live-in-the-moment.

Continuing that with his parallel theme, on therapy,

Therapy, too, can appear bafflingly opaque when viewed from outside the patient-therapist relationship. When asked what happens in session, a patient tells her friend, accurately: ‘We talk.’ The friend looks at her like she’s being taken for a ride. How can ‘talking’ make any appreciable difference in her life?

How indeed. But I did not let me thoughts on that subject color my reception of this book.

Time is important to gaming, in-game and real-world. And space:

The road between worlds is two-way: unlike most other forms of media – books, theatre, films and television – the player is not only observer but participant.

Some people can immerse themselves in a book or movie, but its not the same. Those media do not interact.

On the game Tomb Raider 3 and some phenomena of players killing the Lara Croft character in many ways (she resurrects), and to me, the phenomena of people reflecting their real lives in their actions with the game characters, a patient “points toward the complex dynamic he has formed with this character, one with power to move from altruism to sadism, love to hate.” I don’t think that way so that’s hard for me to imagine, let alone accept (more reason why I’m an engineer and not a psychologist, right?)

Freud pops up now and then. Kriss acknowledges “the fall of psychoanalysis as the dominant form of mental health treatment…” I’ve done some reading over the years and as noted above, this isn’t my field, but I am given to understand that Freud was on his way out a long time ago.

Kriss talks about one of the earliest “video” games, the classic text-based game Adventure and its creator who was going through a divorce. “A speculative take on Adventure might cast it less as a toy for his children than as a powerful, unconscious drive toward catharsis…” Speculative is a good term – though with a data set of one, speculation has little meaning. Kriss talks about a little of the history of how the game spread, how in 1977 a Stanford grad student requested the source code (we called those programs back then) and expanded it. I tweaked a version in BASIC myself in 1978, and in FORTRAN in 1980.

On the virtual selves of online game play, sometimes people lack skills in real life that they have in spades in a game universe. Finding connection and translating those into real skills doesn’t always seem to have a blueprint (my deliberate use of an anachronistic term.)

Now, that elephant… Kriss talks about a [flawed on many levels, my word and his later explanation] 2005 study in which groups were divided and tasked with playing the “archeological relic” 12 year old Doom. One group played the shoot ’em up normal version, and the other group played a modified version without weapons, simply navigating around the corridor mazes. After 25 minutes, both groups played a prisoner’s dilemma game, finding that the “violent” group was “moderately more likely to defect than its counterpart.” The study’s numbing conclusion was that “violent games may undermine prosocial and altruistic motivation…” And from the meager data that per Kriss “yielded little and yet labelled its findings as ‘remarkable’, video games being harmful became the mantra. It seems to me that the “researchers” (my quotes meant to undermine their credibility) were looking for data to get the conclusion they wanted.

On health, Kriss opens “A criticism often levied at clinical psychologists, and sometimes rightly so, is that our training skews us to view the human experience through the lens of pathology.” From the armchair, I think it is always good to keep a lens on that lens. Different players of games get different things from the games – audio-visual stimulation, character play, or system mechanics as examples. Kriss says “As with other phenomena we have seen, the ‘fun’ of videogames is rooted in the unique relationship that forms between the player and the game, a relationship that at its best helps the player relate more fully to himself.” Struggled hard to keep the mind open… “The player knows this – though often not consciously – and so his play can be regarded as part of the innate human instinct toward health.” More struggles… and then, “It is this same instinct that often brings someone to psychotherapy despite not fully knowing why he has come…” Instinct?? That’s hard.

The subtitle to his chapter on Multiplayer is What can games teach us about how groups and societies function? Turns out, quite a bit. This I’ve seen first hand with my sons’ play. [My notes here were sketchy and unfortunately, make little sense to me now without those highlights I apparently needed.] Kriss says games “had always been a private pursuit” for him… no multiplayer games. That is something I can relate to. Apart from the monstrous simultaneous data screens of so many of those games, I’m not moved to play with other players (I don’t play more than individual puzzle type games myself.) One of Kriss’s patient found a game – EVE [look it up] – overwhelming. My sons played, stopped, and then began playing as again as adults that game. I still laugh at a memory from around 2005-6 when my two older teen sons said, “Dad, you’d like EVE! It has spreadsheets!” (There’s a business component to that game, and no, “spreadsheets” was not an attractant.) I was interested to learn that in 2013 the UN gave EVE a World Summit Award for digital work demonstrating a “high impact on improving society.”

Last paragraph that should be first is something anyone not realizing the impact, or need to help someone realize the impact, should keep handy:

If you love someone who plays games – or you love someone who struggles to understand why you play games – and I can leave you with no other message, let it be this: talk to each other about it! Games don’t bite and neither does an open conversation about thoughts and feelings. Understanding is not difficult, but wanting to understand can be, and to a surprising degree. Wanting to understand can be, and to a surprising degree. Wanting to understand requires that we be curious about the things we don’t know and flexible enough to question the things we think we do know. It requires that we care more about learning than holding a rigid worldview. And it requires that when looking at others, we are open to looking at ourselves.

Those are good words for more than games.

Notes of interest to me:
Loved this!:

My father’s employer had furnished the powerful computer [this was 1986] we used at a time when most families, if they owned a home computer at all, were forced to settle for the cheaper but vastly inferior Apple IIe.

As said in the beginning, the book was originally published in the UK, and I’ve left the spelling as seen in the parts I’ve quoted. And quoting is a conundrum…the disclaimers always say I need permission, but how does one point out positives and less-positives without quotes of examples? A risk I’ll take for semi-clarity.

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