False Fear

Back during my Honours thesis when I was researching about Tragedy and how it functions, I came across the concept of fear/relief as experienced by the audience. Then, when I started researching for the PhD that I never wrote, I saw the same fear-relief brought up in “Leisure Studies” (what they started calling Adult Play Psychology after it became wildly unfashionable for Play theorists to say that grown men and women would ever do anything as frivolous as “play”) in the discussion of Extreme Sports, and again in the rituals of sport. Fast forward a few years, and I find it again in books on Trauma Therapy and overcoming PTSD. I even find it in books on nutrition and adrenal-related disorders such as Adrenal Fatigue or unusual cortisol levels.

Today, in the video on High Concept films, I heard Michael Hauge talk about the promise of emotion: the emotional journey that the viewer will take, through identifying with and relating to the hero. I guess Aristotle wasn’t far off, if these concepts are still being discussed today!

So what was the common thread that I found through all these varied discussions of us humans, fear and relief? When we talk about “adrenaline junkies,” or those who love horror or thriller films or violent video games, are we talking about people who have something seriously wrong with them, who are obsessed with “danger” or violence or something else unsavory and ultimately detrimental to our society?

Well, as far as I have read and reasoned, this couldn’t be farther from the truth (besides, that video pretty much ruined my life-long love of Back to the Future).

When we watch/see/experience something that makes us feel as though there are high stakes, we get stressed. We go into “fight or flight (or freeze)” mode, a state of “high arousal” where our adrenal glands flood us with adrenaline. But rather than worrying about all the things that does on a physiological level, psychologically we become just a little more used to being in a high-stress, high-stakes situation. Now, I can imagine the short-sighted response to that. “Normalisation of bad things like violence is bad and makes us more violent!” Well, no. Normalisation of “bad things” can actually be good, provided they’re talked about. Here’s what happens: we experience something “stressful,” but are subconsciously/consciously (developmental psychologists are pretty sure that it’s conscious but willingly suppressed from the “age of reason” ie “when the child starts playing make-believe”) aware that it’s not really stressful and we’re actually safe, so we use it as a way to prepare ourselves for the real situation where we find ourselves actually in danger. Now, I don’t know how widely accepted or agreed with Peter Levine is within the world of PTSD treatment (I can imagine them thinking his methods are too “hippy”), but he points out in his book “Waking the Tiger” that the individuals least likely to suffer PTSD are the ones who feel the most empowered to respond to the situation. Neither he nor I are talking specifically about Military PTSD, but any situation where we are “powerless” (Levine quotes Freud’s description of traumatisation).

So next time you watch a scary movie, ride a rollercoaster, read a book about war crimes, indulge in the original Tales of the Brothers Grimm, play an almost-R rated FPS, or even watch the news, be aware of your play-training. Because just like a puppy play-fights, by experiencing that “false fear” and the relief that follows, you’re learning to keep your cool in a tough situation, making yourself more resilient and more trauma-proof.

Hypothetical Hiring Quandry

There is a company that, amongst other things, stores things on high shelves. One of the job positions is “High Shelf Manager.” The job description says that the person must be able to both store and retrieve items from the high shelf, which making sure that they don’t knock anything off.

The current “High Shelf Manager” has moved on to another company. Now, the HR department are on the search for the ideal candidate for the position.

In the past, this position has gone exclusively to tall people. Tall people just have a natural aptitude for putting things on high shelves, as well as retrieving them. That’s the way it’s always been. And this time, there are two tall people applying for the job, and one short person. When they go to interview the three people, they find this out: the first tall person has bad eyesight, and would have to do everything by feel; the second tall person is extremely clumsy; the short person has an awesome ladder and is very good at seeing where things are and how to get them.

Overall, the short person is the best for the job. But the HR department are concerned about the reaction of the rest of the company, especially the department that the short person will be in. Because, really, it’s a tall person’s job, isn’t it?

TV Tragedy for Today

I’ve been meaning (“struggling”) to write this post for a while, but today, between an audition for “Project Macbeth” and the season premiere of “The Biggest Loser: The Next Generation,” I think I have the ideal sweet spot.

My hypothesis, if you deign to entertain my reasoning, is that “makeover” reality TV is, functionally, today’s version of Theatrical Tragedy.

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I’ve noticed I’ve been a bit afraid to work on my game… stalling a bit. I mean, I’m always juggling my health, as well as changing jobs and moving house over the last few months, but I’ve been distracted from working on it like I wish I was driven to do.

So I’ve been trying to really understand myself, really get a feel of what I want to be doing (and whether it fits) and figure out why it might not be on the top of my list.

Georgia&Dragon-smaller.jpgThe conclusion that I’ve reached is that I really want to play to my strengths, I really want to do a good job, and I’m scared that either I won’t be proud of this, or I will be making something of a cop-out. In other words, the idea is there, but the vision isn’t. I want to make something “me,” but of course the self is an always-changing concept, especially when going through life changes such as illness (or healing), job search/changes, or moving house. So now, I’m fairly settled, I feel well, and happier that I have been for a long time. I’ve had some moments of clarity, and I’m hoping to get a lot of work done. Hopefully you can all see something very soon!

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).

Don’t be it, just experience it

I just finished reading the GDC talk by Richard Lemarchand, Lead Games Designer at Naughty Dog, “Attention, not Immersion.” Firstly, I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t and didn’t see it at GDC.

But I actually wanted to post about something he mentions about 1/7th of the way through (pages 17 & 18)…

If I could reach into your mind, make you forgot who you were while leaving your
skills and emotions intact, and have you literally believe that you were Nathan Drake,
hanging out the back of a cargo plane with the desert floor a quarter-mile below you,
and gun-wielding enemies above you, you probably wouldn’t be excited and
entertained in the way that everyone at Naughty Dog hopes for, for players of our
…you’d almost certainly be scared witless! No disrespect, you understand.

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Trying out Zoundry Raven

So I’ve noticed I’m the worst blogger EVER. So have you. Or rather, you’ve not noticed, because you didn’t even know that I blog because I never post.

As a result, I’ve decided to try out some desktop blogging software. I found a few recommendations for Zoundry, and while there was another (free) tool also recommended, their website was down and I have a zero patience policy so I downloaded Zoundry Raven instead.

So far, it’s… well, it looks almost exactly like I’m sending an email. So it could be super sneaky for those of you who want to blog at work but not look like you’re blogging. And maybe I’ll feel like I’m emailing people and so I’ll blog more. Who knows?

MIA for a month

So, I’ve been absent for a month. First, I’d like to apologise in advance for the boring post.

There are a few reasons I’ve been absent, the main two being my health and being busy with a ScreenWest Digital Breakout Development Fund grant application. I’ll write more about these later (well, I guess not so much about my health because that’s personal and it’s mostly under control or getting there), but for now I just wanted to post something to bring the blog back to life. Expect more soon!

New Behaviour: Observed before Trained

I was reading in a handy/cheap book called “50 Psychology Ideas You Really Need To Know” about theories of how we learn. What struck me was Albert  Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, particularly observational learning (aka modelling), which states that our first stage of learning new behaviour is through observation. We watch someone else perform a task, we see their success, and then we go into the next stage- we attempt to mimic, or practice. Now, a lot of people get all uppity about how video games are a bad influence. They teach us to be bad people: violent, aggressive, with no regard for other people. Well, if they didn’t already have a belief that this was a good idea, why would they even be drawn to play such games? We seem to have no problem with violent, aggressive behaviour in film (Actually, the book says this: “Hence the power of television and films to encourage behaviour change through the use of attractive, trustworthy actors doing particular things for specific rewards” p175). The argument seems to be, “Well, that’s just watching another person. In video games, you’re actually encouraged to BE that person!” Continue reading