Healing Trauma with Games

In my previous blog post, “Don’t be it, just experience it,” I mentioned that one of the purposes of play is to arouse the survival instinct. I have been reading Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine (with Ann Frederick), and have found many parallels with his treatment of Trauma (or PTSD) using visualisation, imagination and the “Felt Sense.” This is not an ability to seek out a particular kind of matted-fiber material like a pig sniffing for truffles, but rather the ability to have a sense or feelings that are separate from known emotions or logical reasoning. These feelings occur when, for example, you become frightened or joyful: they are clusters of minor physiological reactions to visual (or other) stimuli, such as increased heart rate, held or rapid breathing, shoulder/upper back tension, feeling hot as vasodilation occurs, etc.

Levine describes healing Trauma as having an intangible, mythological aspect. He says that too often, trauma is attempted to be healed through focusing on the traumatic experience itself, which encourages the traumatised individual to stay stuck, instead of focusing on empowering the individual to be able to release the pent up fight-or-flight energy. I’ve also been reading about Cortisol (The Cortisol Connection by Shawn Talbott) and I recognise that expressing fight or flight responses are both physical and therefore cause the breakdown (or elimination?) of Cortisol from the musculatory system. Levine talks about “trembling” or “shaking” and muscular twitching, which could be interpreted as the body doing its own work and eliminating the Cortisol. Animals do it naturally after the threat has passed, and actors will sometimes to a “Shake out” to remove “nervous energy” before or after going on stage.

So why am I bringing this up (apart from it being a topic of interest to me)? Well, I was struck by Levine’s focus on resolving the response rather than reliving the trauma. He suggests that any visualisation that utilises the Felt Sense to evoke the feeling of Trauma can be used to re-train the individual into feeling capable of and choosing to fight/flee (in their mind/feel it) succesfully, rather than being forced to immobilise and submit. Following this, if a player becomes “immersed” in a game, that is, not literally immersed but have the game as a prompt for their Felt Sense, the player will be able to face threatening and potentially traumatic situations (while all the while safe) and become triumphant… sure, most games you’re probably thinking of right now are geared towards the “fight” instinct, but I remember sneaking around in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and freaking out that the guards were going to see me! And sometimes, such as in Left 4 Dead, sneaking or running and getting into the safehouse is just as important as shooting everything around you.

To some extent, this aligns with my belief that games are ultimate about the feeling of control. But maybe a better term is mastery, or as Levine calls a succesful fight/flight endstate, “Empowerment.”

I’m not saying that all games must contain fight/flight resolution and Empowerment (for example, I love Jones in the Fast Lane and there’s no obvious fight or flight… unless you count turn-based competition and the rush to get the best job with the best pay and the most money and be highly educated…) but in an even more abstract sense, that what we strive for is to arouse that feeling of danger in through our Felt Sense and beat the mythical boss monster. As Levine says:

Most of us enjoy the “natural high” we get from wild arousal. Many of us seek out “near-death” experiences like bungee-jumping, skydiving, and paragliding because of the euphoric feeling that comes with extreme states of arousal. […] Human beings long to be challenged by life, and we need the arousal that energizes us to meet and overcome these challenges. Deep satisfaction is one of the fruits of a completed arousal cycle. The cycle looks like this: we are challenged or threatened, then aroused; the arousal peaks as we mobilize to face the challenge or threat; then, the arousal is activley brought down, leaving us relaxed and satisfied.

Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing to think about when we are designing games? And maybe this is a more important aspect to consider than “These games are teaching people how to shoot guns” (they generally aren’t, however they ARE increasing hand-eye coordination).

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