Digital Fantastic: Video Games are not Your Therapy

But they can be!

*Content warning: Trauma, PTSD, Therapy *

My publication in Mapping the Impossible is a recent edit of the dissertation I completed for my Fantasy MLitt. The original title was Of Heroes and Heartbreak: The Therapeutic Function of Fantasy in Video Games. The premise included an argument which advocated for video games as a therapeutic experience. My new article makes no such claims, instead focusing on how one particular game (Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch) deploys literalised psychoanalytic metaphor in the form of Fantasy, in a way that makes emotional processing easier to understand (if you’d like more information, find the article here).

The best thing about writing my article was using Mr Drippy’s name in an academic context.

When I was a vice-editor for Press Start I always used to tell people who submitted to us (in nicer terms) that you can’t just recycle your coursework for publication, you have to actually DO SHIT to it. And, like the icon, the mentor, the PARAGON of the academic community wot I am (jk jk) I practised what I preach and DID SHIT to my own paper before submitting it to the journal. This post revisits the academic and personal processes that led to my original argument, before explaining why I have since changed it.

Editing the article, which included extensive studying of my prior draft, made me consider whether video games are therapeutic, which raised further questions as to what the term ‘therapeutic’ actually means and how I arrived at describing video games in this manner.

Are Video Games Therapeutic?

To answer this question, first we need a functional definition to work from. The term therapeutic means something different depending on who is using it. I’m going to keep it simple and include a couple of common functional definitions, then compare these with a working definition I used in my original dissertation.

The colloquial definition, as written in the Cambridge Dictionary is ‘causing someone to feel happier and more relaxed or to be more healthy’ with the example: ‘I find gardening very therapeutic’. By this definition then, anything, including video games, can be therapeutic. 

According to the most reliable and academic source on the internet, Google, therapeutic also means ‘relating to the healing of disease’ and a ‘treatment, therapy, or drug’.

There are arguments that games are therapeutic in relation to both understandings of this word. People find that games might chill them out and have escapist qualities that help them cope with challenging situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, or they may provide parasocial interaction which can help cope with loneliness.

Furthermore, there have also been advancements regarding the use of both serious and entertainment video games for therapy with practitioners such as Kourosh Dini (amongst others) using them as a means to talk through emotional problems with patients, and even simple games such as Tetris have  been used to prevent post-traumatic stress symptoms.

In my dissertation, I took a psychoanalytic approach. I looked at Fantasy imagery using writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, who describes Fantasy as ‘the ‘language of the inner self’.  I argued that video games give us direct access to these unconscious processes by literalising them (as magic, monsters etc) which presents them in a form that allows players to interact with them. I argued that playing video games could offer players catharsis without abreaction via the metaphorical processing of similar emotions as a part of gameplay. I wondered if literally mending broken hearts in a video game might help heal players’ own broken hearts figuratively.

What I proposed was that by allowing interaction with literalised metaphors of affect, video games could allow for the same release of emotion as therapy (catharsis), without the requirement of reliving the traumatic memory attached to it (abreaction). I think what I was suggesting was that video games could do psychological therapy on players, in a way that felt therapeutic in the colloquial sense.

The dissertation did pretty well, so maybe some of my ideas have legs, but they were so intricately woven from the fuckery I was experiencing at the time, that my argumentation was rather tainted by my personal perspective.

Editing your writing is editing your perception

The change in my argument signals a progression in both my academic and personal journey. I didn’t realise it until I started typing this very sentence, but my new argument – that analysing Fantasy imagery in video games can help us better understand emotional processing – was exactly what I was doing during my MLitt dissertation without knowing it.

You see, that was the year I realised I had dissociative amnesia and started to experience the symptoms that accompany the resurfacing of repressed memories. I had no idea what was going on. I had experienced flashbacks and nightmares before, without knowing what they were, but during my research they amped up. At the time, I hadn’t quite realised what had triggered this; I didn’t properly connect my personal experiences to my research until well after I had submitted my work – describing the experience in a blog I wrote a little while after. It’s obvious now that reading about psychoanalysis and trauma theory had triggered partial abreaction, meaning that I had to navigate reliving my trauma and writing a dissertation at the same time.

LOVE THAT FOR ME 🙃.

I only figured out what was going on after reading @thalstral’s thread about dissociative amnesia  on academic twitter, which gave me insight into both what was happening to me and how my research was connected. Looking back, I’ve realised that playing video games, and analysing them, did the opposite of what I’d claimed: it caused me to experience partial abreaction without any catharsis attached to it. Video games were therapeutic for me, but not the good, thorough kind of therapy that helps you cope with things – what happened to me was like going to a crappy therapist who gets you to rip your heart out and show it to them, without taking the time to sew you up again.

So, are video games therapeutic???

Well, it depends.

I don’t want people to read this post and come to the conclusion that both games, and the study of them are ‘bad actually’. Like every game studies academic I have written numerous ‘apology paragraphs’ explaining that GAMES AREN’T BAD. So I must make it explicit that my PTSD symptoms are not the fault of video games.

Video games have the capability to provide a therapeutic experience in a colloquial sense – all us ‘gamers’ use them to change our moods or experience some kind of release. Entertainment video games have also been used by professionals to provide therapy in a psychological sense, and serious games such as Sparx and Apart of Me have been designed for this very purpose. Video games do have therapeutic potential.

Apart of me is a game designed to help people cope with loss.

The way my gameplay and analysis does benefit me, is by helping me to understand emotional processing in a way I hadn’t before, which facilitated a lot of growth. I’m doing SO much better than when I wrote that first unfortunate blog post, and I owe a small part of that to my research which has become a record of my journey.  

Perhaps then, my contribution can provide insight into how games can be therapeutic, rather than labelling them as inherently being so. What I’d like to argue is that understanding games, like understanding any form of art, can aid in the cultivation of emotional literacy which can be used to benefit mental health.

References

See links in text and go read my article ‘Of Heroes and Heartbreak: Digital Fantasy and Metaphors of Affect in Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch‘ in Mapping the Impossible.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to my dear friend Michael Deerwater for helping me edit this post!

Digital Fantastic: My first symposium – Digital Heroisms

Whilst all of my personal bullshit was going on, I was working with my colleagues to organise a symposium! Doing something that others could enjoy has been extremely satisfying. We used platforms other than zoom to run the event, so tried to be as helpful and transparent as possible with speakers/attendees to help get everything up and running! Thanks for your input everyone!

We are going to continue publishing the videos with the GGLab. For now, I’ve uploaded our opening address, for those of you who missed it!

Opening words by Gabriel Elvery Cohen and Francis Butterworth-Parr

Hello and welcome to the 2020 Digital Heroisms conference.

Before we begin, I’d like too say a few words prepared by myself and the board, who I will begin by introducing. I am Gabe, an LKAS funded PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow and co-vice editor of Press Start Game Studies Journal. I research fantasy video games and digital affect with a focus on parasociality and reader response theory. I am joined by our co-chair Francis Butterworth Parr who is a second year SGSAH funded PhD student at the University of Glasgow who researches the deployment of video games as metaphor in contemporary literary culture. I’d also like to introduce our tech support Jack Parkinson who is a researcher at the University of Glasgow and is currently developing a new degree with the Centre for Computing Science Education. Finally, I’d also like to mention our board member Monica Vasquez, a first year PhD student at the University of Glasgow, who researches immersive narratives, fantasy and VR, she cannot be here today but sends her apologies.

We started this Glasgow-based conference ‘before all of this’ happened, intending to hold it at the University. At first we were disappointed and considered cancellation, but then we realised that holding this conference online was entirely in keeping with the spirit of Digital Heroism – a form of heroism that has become exceptionally apt during these trying times as we use the digital space to work, to play, to disseminate information and to connect with each other when we are not physically able to do so. It has become an issue of political urgency to explore and perpetuate ideals of Digital Heroism in the face of not just villainy, a word which feels more descriptive of Disney’s amiable caricatures of badness, but very real and very human evil highlighted by the increased social, financial and political tensions which have been intensified by the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and protests which followed. Real heroes of our time, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the workers of the NHS, have been both aided and encumbered by the digital space. As well as fighting the physical struggle on the front lines, digital heroes have been faced with digital battles: battles of information and disinformation, battles of emotional labour and of education in the struggle to raise awareness to those who can be reached.

Our venue in Runescape and here on Discord, only strengthens our endeavours as it has turned our small Glasgow-based conference into an international event, in which we are lucky to have speakers and attendees from all over the world.

Image

We started this conference because we wanted to explore the ways in which the digital realm functions as a contemporary theory of context for heroism and how this new context may shape our understanding of who and what a hero is in the digital world and consider how we can traverse the digital space with these ideas in mind. But, though the digital space may change how we conceptualise what is heroic, we felt it was important to keep in mind that heroism can be a loaded term, riddled with cultural bias. For so long heroism has been associated with straight, white, Royalty, with Joseph Campbell, with Tolkien and although there is much to learn and enjoy from these stories and ideas and we need not forget them, must digital heroism perpetuate colonialist, heteronormative narratives, or can we create a new kind of heroism, one which is diverse, inclusive and exciting? We have gathered panels which explore how the digital opens and closes doors to particular kinds of historical, cultural or aesthetic heroes and heroines, how the contemporary setting, weaved as it is with digitality, challenges , reinforces, or creates formulations of heroism, and how fantasy literature, a genre more historically situated in the analog tradition of heroes and heroines, could be purposed to determine the digital heroic were all a part of our thinking.

A few quick housekeeping things – Digital Heroisms is being recorded by Gabe and will be made available through the GGlab’s research hub page, so do check that out if you wish to rewatch talks. Do keep an eye out for the special edition of Press Start, an open-source journal that will be publishing the proceedings of this conference. The edition is open to contributions from non-speakers, so if your creative tastebuds are tingling after the conference then do consider sending along a contribution. For asking panellists questions, please type ‘Q’ in the Questions to heroes text channel, and then the panel chair will choose people to either type out their questions in the text channel or to come into the digital heroisms voice channel to speak their question.

Finally, we’d like to thank the Games and Gaming Lab at the University of Glasgow, in particular its directors Matthew Barr, Dimitra Fimi, Jane Draycott and Timothy Peacock for supporting, funding and believing in Digital Heroisms. We’d like to thank all those who submitted to our call for papers and sent us such consistently fascinating engagements with Digital Heroisms. We’d like to thank Jack for his creation of our website and above and beyond contributions to the workings of the conference.