Sometimes I hear an argument, or maybe it’s more of a shibboleth; anyway, it runs: Mental health, or lack thereof, reflects the times. In precarious times like these, precarious mental health is basically symptomatic of a clear-eyed view of the world. To which I supply the corollary: If so, then psychology, the science of mental health and illness, must offer a privileged standpoint from which to understand this world and its sufferers–and then to help if we may by availing ourselves of the things that we’ve been studying here, video games and literature. Might games and play, read in the light of the literary tradition, offer something to the psychologist, and to the depressed, anxious, or otherwise world-bearing player?
To begin with: there are many other ways into game studies, and many other points of connection games have to other subjects well worth studying, which I’d recommend sooner than the psychological. I’m thinking of literature, art, philosophy, cultural history broadly, and especially, perhaps, mythology or theology. For better or worse, though, all these tend to be seen as somehow dilettantish and unserious, and/or impractical and disconnected from real life; whereas psychological language and the problems it purports to help people deal with are felt to be crucially important. Anyhow, they’re central to the discourse about everything wrong with contemporary life. (I would maintain that very discourse is due for critique and counseling, but that’s nothing new–French Theory and Modest Mouse have been there long ago. I’d just say we have to try better.) Contenders for that dubious central place in the discourse, ripe for contention, might be sociology or political economy, the only subjects that strike me as deterministic in their assumptions, as reductive in their models of human nature, and as parasitic in their roots upon the humanities, as psychology. And when I turn to look at it that way, psychology doesn’t seem like such a bad way in to video game studies.
Pop psychology and self-help are profligate of strawmen here, but I’m not thinking just of the enthusiasms and pretensions and earnest takedowns thereof in, say, Donnie Darko. I have in mind Daddy Freud and cool Uncle Jung, Papa Piaget and the ZPD and Flow theorists, all the way through to the eminent Pinkers and Haidts of today; not just the youtubers and Ted-Talkers, but all the podcasters and intellectuals with and without institutional heft, degrees, accolades, and patient testimonials. I except, of course, William James, from the general diatribe.
To riff on Donnie Darko for a minute, though: there is also that scene where they’re presenting their idea for a baby VR device, and the teacher points out that maybe we need sleep, uninterrupted, unimproved by technology or art. I think there’s something to that.
Then again, for all the benefits an apologist like me might promise from the humanities–the beauty and truth of poetry, the joie de vivre of dialogue, the play of associations and resonances looking at words and images, the sense of being part of something larger, the peace and joy of reading a book and falling asleep–the fact seems impossible to deny: we just have not learned to value these things as much as the material progress promised by the sciences. Even or especially the soft ones. And more and more of us are depressed, lonely, alienated, anxious, by any measure. Anecdotally, to be sure, we feel this, too–and with good reason! For causal explanations, we may well look to the psychologists and the rest and see what they make of the data tracking our despair brought on by social media, bad news, climate doom, AI disruption, onerous debt… Or maybe I’m just projecting and it’s all sour grapes, as I’ve never actually seen a psychologist for counseling. Instead, I talk to family and friends, often about video games, and write about the same, and go outside, and sleep. I can’t tell anymore whether it’s a privilege to have a therapist, or not to have one and to make do without.
But enough rant/reflection. Let’s look at examples: Getting Gamers, Moral Combat, and The Gaming Mind. I offer this brief overview of a trio of books on psychology and video games aimed at general audiences with one more caveat: I include these three because I’ve read them, which is to say, they are the ones available through my library’s Libby. Readers might prefer to start instead with a classic, like The Moral Judgment of the Child, where Piaget finds in games like marbles the roots of a whole theory of increasingly freeform relationships between players and rule-systems (I did read this once, but it’s been awhile); or with a contemporary thought leader, like Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play; or with video essay case studies like this one on Undertale from Screen Therapy. I see there are also a couple of scholarly anthologies on game series: The Psychology of The Legend of Zelda and of Final Fantasy, edited by Anthony Bean. And now I’m remembering how good Alison Gopnik’s books on child psychology are, if a little light on video games.
Of my three Libby books, though, the most encompassing look at the subject is Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People who Play Them, by Jamie Madigan (2016). It’s one to dip into for a broad range of topics, suitable to excerpt from or to quickly summarize the state of the discourse, circa mid-2010s, which is historically when the mental health crisis we’re in the midst of now really got going. It’s also the most skimmable, if I recall, particularly where the authorial voice gets intrusive. Covering topics from players’ psychology to companies’, the book is organized according to questions about the various parties involved in the industry; the answers, by and large, tend to come back to certain premises about motivation, which to me just aren’t that compelling or interesting. For a better book about that, I recommend The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis. Lewis is a great writer; he not only traces the thinking and relationship of Kahneman and Tversky, but helps to show how dramatically their work questioned the scholarly and social consensus about what motivates human behavior.
Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong, by Patrick Markey and Christopher Ferguson (2017) is a much more focused look at the subject of violence in games and what, if anything, that tells us about the psychology of those who play them. Avowedly biased in favor of games and players, and against the moral panic conjured up by their detractors, the authors are preaching to the choir for me and for many readers, I suspect, when they argue that the claims about the dangers of violent video games have been drastically over-reported. Still, it’s useful to have a summary of the controversy laid out, and the relevant evidence reviewed in what seems like a thorough manner, if there’s even a slight chance that someone might be persuaded to give games the benefit of the doubt. Ruling out games as the cause or even a significant factor in real world violence brings us that little bit closer to confronting the real problem, perhaps. Again, psychology doesn’t seem adequate to it; politics seems paralyzed; the society sickeningly inert; but it might even be possible that games could help where all these fall short, if we recover a deeper sense of community through them. For a magnificent illustration of the role of art in this continual effort of reconnection, I go back to the original video essay, the BBC Civilisation program, narrated by Kenneth Clark. I dream of imitating it, focusing on games like EarthBound and books by the likes of Pullman.
The Gaming Mind: A New Psychology of Videogames and the Power of Play, by Alexander Kriss (2020) is far and away the most thoughtful and thought-provoking of these three books. The author’s interview here gives a good sense of the approach, the personality behind it, and why I’m inclined to find it so congenial. We have references to Proust’s madeleine and the triggering phrase ‘gamer kid,’ to Winnicott (whose Playing and Reality is cited by 23K and counting), to The Black Cauldron (about which Mrs Kelly, leading light of Forest Oak Middle School, showed us a board game project sample once, but probably never knew it was a Sierra computer game, too), and Myst (from the brothers Rand and Robyn Miller, based here in Spokane). Kriss explores through case studies and reflections on his experience with games and psychoanalysis the ways in which video games have enriched his and his patients’ lives, and how discussing and thinking about them has led to what you might call breakthroughs. The reading of Silent Hill, for example, is fascinating, though it’s a game I’m afraid to play. And Kriss even turns his hand to making a game of his own, the interactive fiction Progression. Insightful as it is, the book leaves me wanting more of a holistic call to action for understanding games and people alike in themselves, not as indices of pathology and health. But that after all is the endless project I’ve set for myself, labeling it, if it needs a label, as mythological or mythopoetic in orientation. As far as psychology goes towards contributing directly to that attempt, The Gaming Mind is about as humanistic and educative a book as I’ve yet found. It has the distinct advantage over my own tentative efforts of being published and clearly written, to boot.
All three of these are picking on strawmen of their own, I suppose. That they are written for general audiences means that in each book, the authors are continually addressing themselves to doubts and problems and explaining things that people who play games probably won’t need, and that people who don’t play games probably won’t fully appreciate until they do. Still, for a place to start, as thought partners, and as sources of further reading for those who like that sort of thing, these books on psychology and games are well worth a look.
Up next, just to get even further out of my depth, let’s hazard a review of Play in Philosophy.