By Mike McMahan, LPC
I have written extensively about the power of narratives in psychotherapy, particularly in one of my favorite pieces, concerning the films of Quentin Tarantino. So I was kinda blown away when I ran across this article from Wired that makes a lot of the same points I’ve tried to make, only really cool because it’s about nuclear bombs going off in video games. I’m being sarcastic, but not really; my whole reason for this blog is to help people think about therapy and self-help in terms of pop culture that they enjoy in everyday life and to remove the stigma of mental health by helping people realize that tools are all around them and already in their personal arsenal. Your arsenal, that is. You hold the keys to solving current problems by examining past successes.
The section that most struck me from the Wired piece was “But losing is important. I’m not saying that games should be harder. I’m talking about the importance of failure to narrative.” This applies not just to challenging players in video games, but also to movies and to life. Think about something like Star Wars. Would it have been the same if, instead of getting caught by a tractor beam, the Millennium Falcon had simply waltzed up to the Death Star and blown it up? If Obi-Wan had never been killed by Vader (*spoiler alert--haha*)? No. Luke learned about the meaning of struggle, which gave his ultimate victory of blowing up the Death Star (and ultimately toppling the Empire) more meaning. He had to sacrifice to get there. Things inherently have more value in stories, and in life, if they are hard to get. Which is the point of failure in video games and the article on their lack, at times.
Think back about a time in your life when you have failed at something. And I’m not talking last week. Maybe several months or even years ago. There is the cliché that “there is always a silver lining,” but I think oftentimes we make that silver lining ourselves. When I was in grad school, I got a much lower than expected grade on an assessment exercise. As a result, I really applied myself and did much better and was commended by the professor on a project later in the semester. I realized that I didn’t quite understand what I was supposed to do, so I took a harder look at the textbook and other materials. My final work was much better and even meant more to me. Was I annoyed at the initial low grade? You better believe it. So there was a silver lining, but only because I did something differently.
So consider the failure that you identified from above. What did you learn from that failure? What did you do differently as a result of that failure? If you learned a new skill, how did you learn it? If you adjusted your attitude, how did you make that adjustment? What victory did this lead to and did it mean more to you once you defeated a challenge?
Now think of a challenge that you are facing currently, today, right now in your life. What lesson can you apply from a past defeat followed by victory. What about that new skill? What about a reminder that sometimes you do have to check your attitude or outlook? What about a reminder that things take time and patience is required, even if it’s hard? All of these, and more, can spring from failure. There is power in failure, but you have to harness it.
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
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By Mike McMahan, LPC
Recently, Dorkly published this amusing mashup video which shows the havoc that might occur if our favorite iconic video game characters received a power up device from a different game. I think it’s fair to say “all hell would break loose” and that major ass kicking would occur. The video shows what could happen, and it’s funny and awesome.
Most of us don’t have access to fire flowers or other magical items in our everyday lives (If you know where I can get a fire flower, let me know. It might come in handy at work or in 5 o’clock traffic). But I do believe that we can expand the coping tools that we have at our disposal by looking at others we admire and seeing how they do it: that person might be a friend, family member, or Link. OK, maybe not Link.
Think of a person in your life your look up to or admire. You don’t have to believe this person is perfect—after all, who is? They just need to have one or more qualities that you admire or perhaps aspire to have.
In my case, I have a friend who has a seemingly supernatural ability to stay calm, no matter what. I can only think of one occasion where he expressed anger or strongly reacted to a situation. I really admire this, as it helps him respond rationally to tough situations at work and to stay calm with the frustrations that life can sometimes deal in spades. I would like this skill because while I can stay reasonably calm, I am nowhere near as serene as my friend and his Buddha-esque state of relaxation. I think it’s important to choose something that you want to make a marginal improvement with as you initially complete this exercise, as it is easier to make a long-lasting change when the basic building blocks are already present.
So once you’ve chosen a quality you’d like to possess (or in this case, a “power up”) ask yourself the following questions.
I think in the case of my example, I would like to be able to stay calmer with everyday work frustrations. It would be helpful, because when I stay calm, I am able to think more clearly and make better decisions. I think if I stayed calmer, people would trust in my decisions more because they would know they I was always acting with rationality and logic, rather than emotion and frustration. I think that when people have more confidence in my decisions, they will feel more confident themselves in implementing them. In turn, I suspect this would increase my confidence.
Something to consider once you have completed these questions is: what if I acted in the way I want to be seen? For example, in my case, if I acted more confident in decisions, would it help me stay more calm? This may or may not be true, but sometimes we can act in such a way that what we perceive as the end result may help us build the initial skill. While it’s tricky and can be counterintuitive, I know it can work, as I’ve seen it be successful with my clients.
So ask yourself: what is a power up not currently available in my personal video game, and how can I borrow this from someone else’s game?
Mike McMahan, LPC, is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
By Mike McMahan, LPC
Often, when clients come to therapy, their life stories are convoluted, with strands bouncing all over the place. Is there any value in sorting all of this out?
A recent re-post from Dorkly mused about the question we’ve all wondered about at one time or another. Do all of the storylines from the Super Mario Bros. games really line up and make a cohesive narrative? Though amusing, it turns out that the video is quite serious and meticulous in its approach and methods, even though the presentation is clearly light-hearted. It involves straightening out time-travel plots and revealing that characters thought to be children of other characters are in fact, younger versions of these characters. You’ve always kind of suspected that, right?
However, in all seriousness, this video reminds me of a technique I have successfully used with clients, which is to have them draw a graphic representation of their life history. This exercise is fairly simple to complete, and requires only a pen and a piece of paper. If you want to get really fancy and make your graph especially spiffy, you might want to grab a ruler as well.
Think back to math and the concept of a graph. The Y-axis (or horizontal lower portion of paper) will represent the years of your life. So the lower left corner would be the year of your birth. The lower right corner would represent today, or at least the endpoint of your graph. The X-axis (or vertical portion of graph) would represent a value that you assign to each event, based on (a completely relative) value of how “good” the event is. Place a dot in the corresponding year and place a “value” on the event as well, perhaps starting with your birth. And there is the first question. Where do you value your own birth in your hierarchy of life events? It’s clearly important, but it may have different meaning for someone who grew up in a happy home versus someone who was born addicted to drugs and alcohol to a mother who later lost custody. Take it from there! (See this example, from The New Yorker in the sidebar.)
Events to consider that many would consider positive might include major milestones such as graduations, awards, marriages, births of children. But as we want to get a full picture, don’t forget to include more challenging events such as significant deaths in your life, times you didn’t achieve your goals, mistakes and other similar experiences. Then, once you have completed the events, simply connect the dots. You will have a graphical representation of the ups and downs of your life.
Now that you have this on paper, what do you see? Have you had more ups or downs? Is this because of circumstances in your life, or did you choose all negative (or positive) events? What are the important lessons or skills that you learned from these events? How can you apply these skills going forward?
Remember, this is quite likely to be a work-in-progress. After all, life deals each of us changes, disruptions and triumphs each day. It’s learning to deal with and grow from those changes that’s the real trick.
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
Luigi is back for his third session. In today’s session we find that Luigi’s mood has brightened considerably and we see that sometimes getting “unstuck” in one area (in this case starting to design his own game) can lead to positive changes in other areas of one’s life. In addition, Luigi shows increased self-confidence.
In case you missed it, his first session is available here.
His second session is here.
Therapy Goes POP: Nice to see you again, Luigi. Tell me, what’s gotten better since our last visit?
Luigi: I knew you were going to ask that! So I kept my eyes open.
Luigi: Well, I’ve noticed that it’s been way easier to get up in the morning. I’m not feeling so blue all the time.
TGP: Back to your normal green?
Luigi: Haha, touche! But yeah. I’m having more energy and I realized I was doing a lot of complaining. I don’t think I’m doing that as much anymore?
TGP: What tells you that you’re being more positive?
Luigi: Well, I spent some time with Princess Peach and Yoshi on a picnic. Bowser didn’t kidnap her either, which is rare.
TGP: Wait, I thought that was just part of the game plot.
Luigi: Guy’s a complete nut. I’ll leave it there. But the picnic was nice. Peach said “you seem very pleasant today, Luigi.” Which I appreciated.
TGP: That is nice. What do you think she noticed that was different about you?
Luigi: I’m not sure. Maybe it was because I commented on how good the food tasted and it being a pretty day. I just said it because I noticed it, but maybe I haven’t done that stuff before, or lately, or whatever.
TGP: What was different that day that helped you notice those things?
Luigi: I’m not sure it was just that day. I think I’m feeling energized about my game project and trying to think back about what was the most successful level that I designed.
TGP: How did you go about that?
Luigi: I looked back at the scripts, the blueprints, everything. I have a keepsakes cabinet where I keep things from my projects. I’m a bit of a pack rat.
TGP: What sorts of things did you notice that had been successful?
Luigi: The main thing I noticed is that I’ve been in some stone cold, classic games. But I kept coming back to a level most gamers call Luigi’s Purple Coins that’s in Super Mario Galaxy. It’s kind of a famously tough one.
TGP: What’s good about it?
Luigi: There’s just a combination of tough stuff. Tiles, acid…all kinds of stuff.
TGP: What do you have there that you could carry into a new game?
Luigi: I think it’s the combination that makes it good. I’m not sure there’s enough games that require the player to best multiple challenges at once. I think that’s something I’d really like to use going forward.
TGP: How would that be described? Integrated challenges?
Luigi: Maybe. I’ll have to think about that. But it definitely gives me something to base the game on. Kind of a premise of “things have never been so tough.”
TGP: Nice! Almost sounds likes the catchphrase for the game.
Luigi: It will sell itself.
TGP: What about some of the other stuff we talked about. Like meeting someone to be the female lead.
Luigi: I haven’t had a chance to really go out and do that, but I’m definitely considering it. Being excited about the game has kind of lit a fire under me, so it doesn’t seem as daunting as it seemed last time.
TGP: That’s great. Have you thought about what the story in your game will be about?
Luigi: Not too much. I have been thinking about a heist theme, kinda like a Nintendo Oceans 11. But it’s all in the planning stages in my head right now.
TGP: Have you thought any more about how you will approach Mario?
Luigi: I have. I’m thinking I meet just kind of consult with him on it, and take the idea directly to the execs myself. He has been the star, but it’s not like I’m the new kid on the block. I’ve been a co-star for 30 years now. I think they’ll recognize me?
TGP: So it seems like you’re feeling more confident.
Luigi: I think so, yeah. Speaking of which, I may need to split a little early today. I’m going racing with Mario. Is that OK?
TGP: Of course! It seems like you’re doing really well. Did you want to schedule another appointment or call me if you need to come in again?
Luigi: That sounds good. I don’t want to totally fall out of the habit of this, as I think talking has been really helpful. But I’m not sure I need to schedule another appointment just right now.
TGP: Understood. That’s how it works with a lot of clients.
Luigi: Thanks for everything! Keep an eye out for my new game.
TGP: Will do!
So, today, we saw a very typical case resolution. When Luigi first came to therapy, he was frustrated with his brother, but was able to set a goal of developing a successful video game franchise. He has not met that goal yet, but he feels he is taking steps towards that goal. Once clients have achieved this mindset, sometimes they feel that further therapy is not necessary. Other clients may continue to feel that they need the emotional support provided by a strong therapist/client bond. Or as one problem is solved or one goal is met, others may become apparent or may even be created by the first solution or set of solutions. Luigi may very well return for more therapy as he continues to work on bettering himself. Only time will tell…!
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Antonio, Texas.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture