Video games, video games, video games…! Must they be the bane of every parent’s existence? For every fun story I hear about “I played MarioKart all afternoon with my son the other day. It was great…the games are so much better than when we were growing up,” there are about ten that are more like “all he wants to do is play video games, all the time! I have to drag him off to do his homework or even to eat!” But are video games all bad? In a previous post, I addressed some of the therapeutic value of video games. But if you have a child who loves video games, how do you, as a parents, go about helping your child actually benefit from their video game obsession, as opposed to making it a thorn in everyone’s side and a flash point of conflict?
This post from Dorkly does a great job of succinctly boiling down some of the exact positive themes I have noticed in video games. For purposes of this blog post, I would like to focus on two of these maxims, “take pride in your work even if it’s not the prettiest” and “focus on what you’re good at” and suggest a way that parents might maximize results with these catchphrases. Though the goal and outcome may be different depending on the current status of video games in your household.
However, before you can really engage your child about video games, a dialing down or de-escalation of the conflict may be in order.
The first question parents must ask themselves is how positive or negative the topic of video games is currently: if there’s no argument and everyone’s on the same page, these may be fairly easy strategies to implement. On the other hand, if video games have everyone ready to go nuclear, it’s important to take that into account.
So, yes, let’s be honest. Depending on how old and/or cynical your kids are, as a parent, you can’t just wake up one morning and pretend that you are suddenly in love with video games, especially if they have previously been a source of tension between you and your “mini-me.” As the slogans and their illustrations are easily downloaded and printed, I would suggest that you hang one or two on the refrigerator without mentioning or calling attention to them. If your child asks about them, of course that is an opening to begin talking. If not, just leave them for a week or so and wait for an opportunity to discuss. And watching for (or even creating) an opportunity may be key to the success for this strategy.
The two "lessons" that will be the focus of the rest of this post are available below.
For example, as a jumping off point for the Minecraft maxim (“take pride in your work…”), look for your child to say something positive about something they have created or completed. You might add “that reminds me of the Minecraft picture I put up on the fridge the other day.” At this point, the child will likely either acknowledge they have seen it or give you an opportunity to say it was “something I saw on the internet that reminded me of you.” This compliment will function in two ways: one, you are reinforcing your child’s perception that whatever they created has value and that both of you are aware of it; two, it is an opening to signal your openness towards a positive view of videogames and frame your compliment in a way that gets your child’s attention. This may be especially effective if video games are a current source of tension and may have the added benefit of signaling at least a slight reduction in the rhetoric that likely surrounds the subject. Oftentimes when something is a source of argument, especially between a parent and child, the discussion can easily turn into a game of one-upmanship that escalates the problem without taking one step towards a solution. This sort of one-upmanship is an easy pattern to fall into in any relationship and may itself become the source of problems.
I would also suggest that you look for a time to apply the reinforcement “focus on what you’re good at.” When we are looking for times to reinforce a positive behavior in our children, it is amazing how apparent they can come. Oftentimes, children will take a strength-based approach without even realizing it. “We had a group project today in science and I was in charge of putting the slide together because I’m good at the little details” or “when we played volleyball today in P.E. I took the setter position because I always notice who’s in position to do what.” As a parent, this might be an opening to say “yeah, that reminds of the saying I put on the fridge the other day,” hopefully with some of the same results outlined above.
Whatever the result, the goal of this outcome is to praise your children on an important life skill, but in a way that shows you are paying attention to what is important to them. It’s very easy as parents to constantly nag, criticize or give advice, but much more challenging to simply reinforce something a child might already be doing well, but not being praised for. Working this recognition of skills into conversation may pay considerable benefits in your child’s functioning and behavior.
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Antonio, Tx.
Luigi is returning for his second session today. In case you missed the first part, it’s available here: http://www.mikemcmahanlpc.com/therapy-goes-pop-blog/luigi-goes-to-psychotherapy-session-1
Today we will see how Luigi completed his homework assignment and how the completion of this assignment is used to help Luigi make progress towards his goal of starring in a new game. In addition, there will be some clarification of how Luigi perceives a key relationship in his life and some role-playing.
TGP: Welcome back, Luigi. What’s gotten better since the last time we visited?
Luigi: Oh, I don’t know. I’m still feeling a lot of the same negative feelings that we talked about last time.
TGP: I’m sorry to hear that, and I definitely want to talk more about it. I know it can be really hard to feel so down all the time. Just getting out of bed can be an achievement. But before we do, can you think of anything that might have gotten slightly better?
Luigi: Well, hmmmmmm. I guess things are going a little bit better with my brother. I don’t feel like blasting him with a fireball every time he walks in the room.
TGP: That’s something! So you’re a little less angry, a little more calm…?
Luigi: I’d say so.
TGP: That’s a great step, as I know you were feeling pretty frustrated with Mario when I saw you last.
Luigi: The homework assignment that you gave me helped some. I started thinking about the things that I’ve been doing to get my own game franchise really going, and I realized that I’ve always had a good working relationship with Mario.
TGP: How so?
Luigi: Well, he’s always encouraged the higher ups at Nintendo to let me collaborate on the tougher sections, which is kind of my forte. I think I mentioned that last week.
TGP: You did.
Luigi: Yeah, and once I started thinking about it, he really listens to my ideas on his games.
TGP: I notice that you said “his games” even though they are Super Mario BROTHERS…
Luigi: Well, I said that too last time. He’s got his name in the title.
TGP: Yes, you did. What do you think Mario would say about this conversation, if he was sitting here with us?
Luigi: I think he would be surprised. I haven’t ever really talked to him about the way I feel about his name being so prominent. He might think I was a little ungrateful, too. I suppose he didn’t have to include me. After all, he had a leg up after being the sole hero in Donkey Kong. And I think he thinks that he gave me the opportunity of a lifetime including me in the live action show in the 80s.
TGP: I forgot about that….
Luigi: It hasn’t aged well. I wish someone would take it down from Netflix. I guess Nintendo is making money somehow.
TGP: It is different to see you non-animated.
Luigi: Blecccccchh. Don’t remind me.
TGP: OK, so Mario feels like he’s been a huge help all these years, but you feel like it’s something of both. But your relationship is not something you want to change.
Luigi: Yeah, that sounds kind of confusing when you say it like that. I guess what I mean is I like the way he listens to me on some things but I wish there was more of it.
TGP: So, is it fair to say that the thing you don’t want to change is the positive parts of that relationship? The collaborations you mentioned?
Luigi: Yeah, that’s fair. What’s good is good, I just want more of it. But when he acts like everything I have is because of him… I don’t like that. I also don’t like that he somehow always seems to end up with Princess Peach. You’d think maybe a new female part could be cast…? (twirls moustache)
TGP: So you’d like to have some support outside of your brother. You mention Peach. How did she become involved in the series in the first place?
Luigi: I’m not sure. But I do know she brought Bowser into the game. He’s obsessed with her!
TGP: You mean in the games? The way he’s always kidnapping her?
Luigi: No, for real. Guy’s a total nut. Real headcase. But she and Mario put up with it because he’s seen as irreplaceable.
TGP: Like you?
Luigi: (pauses) Yeah… (another pause) I guess so. I mean, they can’t just recast me….
TGP: Right. So you’re an integral part of the franchise, even if you aren’t frequently the lead. What would it be like if you left?
Luigi: I don’t think it could go on. “Brothers” is right there in the title!
TGP: So, you’re an integral part of the creative team, who wants to be more creative, more of a leader and perhaps meet a new female character. Maybe someone to become involved with yourself. Where do you think you could meet her?
Luigi: There’s some castles in the area, but you usually have to slide down pipes to get inside. That’s less than ideal.
TGP: Well, if you want to meet someone it’s never easy.
Luigi: True. If it was easy, I would have already met someone.
TGP: OK, so say you meet this new female character. So that’s covered. And you mentioned that you like your current collaborative relationship with Mario. How can you use the skills you’ve discussed today to make a small step towards your own game franchise?
Luigi: Well, maybe I could just be honest and tell him straight up? No fighting, no fireballs, no giant, out-of-control hammers. Just lay it out.
TGP: Why don’t you pretend I’m Mario and practice telling me? Maybe it will help you find your words.
Luigi: OK. (pauses and takes a deep breath) “Hey, Mario. You got a second? I’ve been thinking a lot and I’m really… I’ve got some ideas for a new game. You know I love getting to help out on the tough levels on Mario Brothers and since Luigi’s Mansion was such a hit, I thought maybe you could help me talk to the higher ups about making something really tough and challenging. Toughest game ever. I could include my new girlfriend. (As an aside, Luigi says “I’d know her name by then.”) I’ve got some really great ideas if you want to listen.”
TGP: That’s great, Luigi. How do you think he would respond?
Luigi: I think he would listen and help me. Whenever we talk seriously like that it usually works out pretty well, actually.
TGP: OK, well don’t talk to him yet. I think you’re still thinking things through and you don’t want to change too much too fast.
Luigi: I’m not ready yet anyway.
TGP: We’re about to run out of time. Did we talk about what you wanted to cover today?
Luigi: Yes, definitely. I’d like to schedule another appointment.
TGP: OK. For homework, I want you to think about what you think the best scene, sequence or challenge that you’ve come up with previously is. Or at least your favorite. And also consider what makes it successful. And I want you to think of one that’s slightly better or adds some intriguing new element. Not the ultimate scene ever, which you may get eventually. But just a slight, tiny one up and what you’ve already done.
Luigi: I can do it. See you next time.
Luigi seems to be making some progress, as he noted at the beginning of the session. Oftentimes initially asking the question “what has gotten better since last time?” will help set the tone for a therapy session and the client may verbalize or recognize strengths or slightly alter their narrative in a helpful way. It’s also notable that he is seeing some positives in his relationship with his brother, something he was struggling with during the first session. In addition, looking at possible solutions for his problem led him to realize that he might be interested in adding in a new person in his social life. His homework assignment will hopefully help him apply one of his strengths in a way that will take him another step towards his goal.
Many of you are no doubt familiar with Luigi, the iconic, green-suited hero of Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers and numerous spinoff games. Luigi’s (purely fictional) situation, like many real-life situations, will take several sessions to resolve. Let’s start today with defining his problem, goal setting, and a basic homework assignment.
At the risk of stating the obvious, while this fictional dialogue serves as a good teaching tool, it also vastly oversimplifies several aspects of therapy, most notably the emotional connection between therapist and client.
Therapy Goes Pop: Hi Luigi, nice to meet you. Why don’t you tell me about what brings you in today?
Luigi: Well, I guess I’ve been going through a kind of middle age thing, maybe. I’m 32 years old now and it’s like life isn’t all fun and games like it once was.
TGP: How so?
Luigi: Well, I feel like I’m slotted into this “younger brother” or “sidekick” thing. And I’m the tall one!
TGP: You’re talking about your brother, Mario, right? You’re taller than him?
Luigi: Yeah. Not everyone knows that. I feel like I don’t get ticked off so easily, either.
TGP: Better temper control. That’s good.
Luigi: I guess. But I always feel like I got kind of a raw deal. I mean, I get my own games from time to time. You’ve played Luigi’s Mansion, right?
TGP: Uh, no, sorry. I’m not always up on the newer games.
Luigi: (scowling slightly) It’s not really new. See, that’s just it. I’m always the sidekick! I bet you’ve kept up with HIS games, right? He gets his name on everything. Super Mario Brothers…! Like “Mario” is our last name! Ridiculous. Everything that’s gone wrong is due to… him. Mario!
TGP: Well, I’ve seen your games in Target and at Best Buy. As far as playing them… (pauses) But let’s talk more about why you’re here. I assume not to quiz me on games?
Luigi: Right, right. I’ve been dwelling on the sidekick thing and it’s really eating at me.
TGP: What do you mean “eating at you?”
Luigi: Well, I have trouble going to sleep at night because I can’t stop thinking about it. Then in the morning I don’t feel like getting out of bed because I know that all day it’s gonna be “Mario this and Mario that.” Everything is Mario.
TGP: That must be tough.
Luigi: It is. I barely feel like stomping koopas or eating fire flowers anymore. Or even driving my go-kart. It’s been awful.
TGP: Sounds like it. How long has this been going on?
Luigi: Oh, I don’t know. I guess a little over two years or so. Ever since Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon came out. I remember being how excited I was that it got such good reviews and sold really well. Then nothing. People were like “oh, great, Luigi” and then moved on to whatever. Back to Call of Duty, or MMOGs, or back to Mario, or whatever.
TGP: So that left you feeling…
Luigi: Like a sidekick, like I was saying earlier. Like “we’ve made our million bucks off you, Luigi, now go back to whatever you were doing before, playing second fiddle.”
TGP: I see. That must have been hard for you, since it seems like you were hoping for more.
TGP: If you could have decided for yourself what would happen… Say you had a magic wand that would control the rest of the world. What would you have liked to happen?
Luigi: Hmmmmm. That’s tough. I guess I would have liked to be in charge of my own franchise. Not one suggested by Nintendo, but one where I create the story line, the objects, the big bad. The whole deal.
TGP: So, thinking in terms of movies, you want to direct?
Luigi: Well, yeah, that’s pretty much it. I never thought of it like that. I’d need to write the screenplay, too.
TGP: Sure. Writer/director. So it seems like you would use your wand to control the Nintendo executives, not really Luigi. Or Bowser or Donkey Kong.
Luigi: (pauses) I guess that’s true. Mario hasn’t really done anything wrong. The whole thing just fell in his lap because he knew Princess Peach from before, and then when Donkey Kong concocted this whole kidnapping thing. But that’s ancient history.
TGP: Sure. What stops the Nintendo execs from giving you a franchise. What did they say when you asked them?
Luigi: Well, I never really asked them, when you put it that way. I just sort of assumed after the success of my games that it was the natural next step.
TGP: Is it? I don’t know much about game development. Is that how it works?
Luigi: Now that you mention it, not really. Link has an army of agents pushing for everything. Guy can write his own contract.
TGP: So is that something you need? Did you have any input on your games?
Luigi: Well now that you mention it, I sometimes give some input on Super Mario Brothers, on the harder levels. I’m kind of the go-to guy on the really challenging stuff. More bombs. More lava. And so forth.
TGP: So, you’re known for creating challenging levels, but not known for having your own team behind you, right? More of a solo operation? But you’ve been making it work on some level.
Luigi: Yeah, I guess so.
TGP: We’re about to run out of time for today. Do you want to schedule another session?
Luigi: Yeah, it was good to talk about some of this stuff.
TGP: OK. For next time, I want you to consider the one thing you’re already doing that you can do more of that will help you in getting to where you want to be in developing the games.
Luigi: I could--
TGP: (interrupting) Don’t tell me now. Homework gives you something to think of between session and somewhere to start for next time.
Luigi: OK. I can do that.
TGP: As far as today, did we talk about the things that are important to you?
Luigi: Yeah, we did. It was helpful. Thanks.
So what did we learn from Luigi’s first session? He sees himself stuck in a narrative in which he is a sidekick to his brother, Mario. He is able to recognize some of his own strengths, such as being able to control his temper, and solve problems. He feels that he hasn’t achieved the success he wants, but he also may not have fully pursued the options that he has. It may be that looking at different avenues to create his own game series will cause him to view the problem in a different light, as opposed to simply blaming the situation on his brother. This may also help him realize that the actions of others are completely out of his control, while his own actions are completely within his control. In addition, we got an idea of some of the supporting players in his narrative. What will he do with his homework assignment? We will see when he returns for his second session.
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Antonio, Texas.
I ran across this article today, as it was shared on Facebook by no less an authority than the American Psychological Association. Regular readers of this blog already know that I rely on metaphors frequently in therapy, and I have used video games (such as Minecraft) to engage young adults into the therapeutic process and to help them think of systematic approaches to problem. But it turns out that there is a neurological component as well. I would caution that no one is recommending 24/7 gaming for any number of reasons, but the article certainly opens some possibilities.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture