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15 Minutes of Fame: Counseling people who happen to play games

Erinia
From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.

Do your friends, family or coworkers still cling to old-fashioned notions of video games as the provenance of social misfits and those who can't stay focused on the demands and rewards of real life? Take heart -- there are professionals out there who understand the gaming perspective and are working to help normalize gaming as mainstream pastime it has actually become. One of the many leading the charge is WoW player and master's-level psychology student Erinia of Cenarion Circle, whose track toward becoming a licensed mental health counselor includes helping both players and other mental health professionals understand the pulls, demands, and concerns of players who enjoy games like WoW.

Erinia has discovered that magic sweet spot where work, play, and a passion for all of it come together. "Am I an exceptional player?" Erinia asks. "Probably not, but WoW has opened up a lot of doors for me in the real world." We would accuse the lady of understatement here; click past the break for more on counseling, World of Warcraft, and new perspectives on how to help troubled people -- who happen to enjoy playing games -- understand themselves.

Main character Erinia
Guild Endow
Realm Cenarion Circle (US-H)

15 Minutes of Fame: Tell us about your course of study. Does gaming figure in any official capacity?

Erinia: My course of study is basically counseling psychology at the master's level. When I graduate in May, I'll fulfill the state course requirements for licensure as a mental health counselor. After that, it's on to a two-year paid internship to accumulate the necessary post-graduate hours.

Gaming is not an official part of my coursework, but I have concentrated on gaming as much as assignments allow. If I can apply gaming in any capacity to an assignment, I use it. For instance, in Research Design, I created a research study with fictional data, explored gaming addiction in my substance abuse class, and even applied theories of group counseling (e.g., Yalom) to guild dynamics. I've looked at the influence of gaming (including consoles) on the development of a person. I dance to a different drum in my program, much to the perceived chagrin of my professors.

So what sort of projects and coursework have you completed that are specifically linked to gaming?

During the interview process of the internship, I was asked about any specific projects that I would like to do if I was selected as an intern. Well, I mentioned that I was a gamer: "Well, I play World of Warcraft, and I have known a lot of people who have allowed WoW and other games to interfere with their daily lives. I personally know of several people who dropped out of this college because of WoW. As such, gaming and internet addictions are a particular passion of mine. I believe, and would be interested, in developing a workshop targeted toward those students who may have some problems with gaming and internet addictions and provide some type of intervention before they drop out of college. I have done a lot of research on gaming addiction, including articles by ... researcher Nick Yee. This workshop might focus on appropriate social interactions and time management skills. Students and those in the community do need to be made aware." (My interest in gaming helped get the internship, but it wasn't the only reason. I'm actually a really good counselor! I swear!)

So far, in my internship, I have presented a professional issues seminar on problematic gaming to the psychologists at the counseling center on campus. They were very impressed with the seminar and have encouraged (demanded) that I present a similar workshop for students this semester. (An intern has never presented at the professional issues seminar before, so it was an honor!) The seminar focused on why the professionals at the counseling center should care about problematic gaming, as well as de-pathologizing WoW.

There is still a huge stigma associated with MMOs in general, but WoW is considered to be an addictive monster. Clients are very reluctant to mention gaming at all during the beginning stages of treatment because of this stigma. They will typically come into therapy for help with depression or anxiety. It is only later that they might briefly mention gaming.

Erinia during Brewfest
You've noted that there is a lot of controversy in the professional community about whether or not gaming addiction actually exists. Granted, it's a meaty subject that could take an article of its own, but briefly, where does your own viewpoint fall -- gaming addiction exists, there's no such thing, or somewhere in between?

Lisa, you're right. This is a topic that can get lengthy and convoluted very quickly. Even to me, there is no easy answer. I absolutely believe that there are certain people who can become addicted to gaming. There are studies that have demonstrated remarkable similarities in brain activity between substance use (think cocaine) and gaming.

I am not saying that WoW players are addicts. Gaming already has such a stigma associated with it, and adding addiction onto that creates even more stigma. (Addiction is often co-morbid with things like depression and anxiety). I prefer the phase problematic gaming. By using problematic gaming, therapists are forced to shift from the idea of addiction to looking at the gaming as a symptom of a larger picture. Is the person gaming 40 hours a week because she's home on summer vacation and has nothing else to do, or is she gaming because she's depressed? It removes some of the stigma associated with gaming and then we can look at what is causing the depression.

Gaming becomes a problem when it interferes with the real world. When folks lose their jobs or drop out because they play the game all day, it's a problem. The same can be true of relationships, though the question becomes, did the person game to escape a bad relationship, or was the relationship solid when the person began to game?

And there's a beneficial side ...

Gaming can absolutely be beneficial for people. MMOs in particular are useful tools for learning a second language, help with socialization skills, and can even help people who previously, were unable to form connections with anyone else. Gaming can improve self-esteem, and I think that they would be especially helpful with trauma work.

I recently ran this thought past my supervisor and he mentioned that Tetris can delay the onset of trauma. WoW would force a person to negotiate social relationships after a trauma. (People tend to isolate after traumatic experiences, especially sexual assault due to lack of trust in people and the world). I mentioned before my theory that gaming can help people form their identities as they experiment with different parts of their personalities.

Erinia
With professors and fellow students who don't have even a basic grasp of the dynamics of gaming, you must find yourself in tricky currents from time to time. Do you think your projects and participation in classes have managed to lend them a broader perspective?

Absolutely. Most people I've worked with in class and at the counseling center had no idea what gaming entailed and were stuck on the stereotype that all gamers are overweight males with no life and living in their parent's basement. By now most will at least acknowledge that gaming is a subject worth some investigation. I have helped dispel the myths surrounding gaming and especially WoW.

I think my passion for the subject has helped along with engaging presentations (and handy cheat sheets they could keep). The psychologists at the counseling center really like having the cheat sheets handy because they can refer to the sheet to learn what a raid is if a client comes in and talks about gaming. As a former client who talked about gaming, there is nothing more disrupting than to have a therapist stop you and ask, "What is a raid? What's a guild? Why is this important?"

It's really important for all therapists to know about gaming, because players aren't restricted to teenagers; veterans of war, other professionals, and yes, college students play. MMORPGs are heavily involved with social interpersonal dynamics that can have a real effect on Real Life™.

Do you find that closed attitudes toward gaming are very difficult to break down even in an academic setting?

Is it out of line to say Hell, yes?! I have faced a lot of adversity from several professors because of my interest in problematic gaming. To them, it's not something that is a legitimate topic, and it's not a legitimate addiction. To them, people can just stop playing whenever they want with no adverse effects. I think a lot of gamers would disagree. I certainly do. Unfortunately, for them, technology is becoming more integrated into the global culture. Gaming will become
more of a problem in the future and it's up to my generation of clinicians to be prepared.

Tell us a little bit about your own WoWing habits. Do you get time to play regularly? What's your guild busy with these days?

Okay, this is embarrassing. I play ... a lot. I must clock in about 25 hours a week on Erinia. Two years ago, I would have met criteria for problematic gaming.

Right now, I'm part of Endow's progression 25-man raiding team as their main DK, as well as their social officer. I manage all sorts of activities within the guild, including the guild raffle (members contribute some mats for flasks, enchants, gems, repairs, and we enter them in a drawing to win a bunch of gold), and events like a realm-wide Hallow's End Bash coming up at the end of October. My guild is co-hosting the event along with an RP guild on the realm. I'm really excited because I have always done parties for my guild during Hallow's End and Winter Veil, but never a realm-wide one. We are doing a costume contest and giving away some prizes that I have yet to determine. I'm thinking about giving away a few Blizzard pet store pets.

I also run in guild events like achievement runs or a very selfish quest to get Shadowmourne. (Okay, I did give the contents of the special chest away). I'm also a bit of an achievement junkie. I love the game, and I love my guild.

Erinia
What do you plan to do once you have your degree? Do you think close ties to gaming will remain a part of that?

Once I get my master's, I plan to work toward getting my hours for licensure. I hope to continue to be part of the gaming community and use my knowledge and skills to help others who might have a problem with gaming. Where I live, there isn't much knowledge about gaming in general (I'm the go-to person on campus about the subject). I really want to work on publishing some research on the relationship between gaming and personality, even if it's simply anecdotally backed. My goal isn't to make money on the topic, but to educate other professionals. I really hope to look at how MMOs can help with trauma work, especially sexual assault. I really think that the application is there, but there is a total lack of research on that topic. It would be super-cool to get published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Gaming will always remain part of my life in some form. I grew up with a Nintendo and Sega, and graduated to building my own gaming computer. It's hard to even fathom a time when gaming won't be part of my life or my professional career, especially when it's such a passionate part.

Read more from Erinia at her blog, including psychology-related posts such as what guilds need to survive, the 6 R's and a sample about gaming addiction.

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with these players, from a player battling Alzheimer's disease to Game of Thrones' Hodor (Kristian Nairn), gaming industry insider Liz Danforth and El of El's Extreme Anglin'. Know someone else we should feature? Email lisa@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame

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