Switching to virtual acts by Michael Stora

Nowadays, videogames represent an emerging culture. Still decried as a hobby originating violence and addictions, reality shows that, for more than three years, in terms of turnover, they’ve been the most popular leisure, before cinema, video and music. This means that the stories told by most children that we receive in psychoanalytic psychotherapy have the form of a picture (television, cinema) and the interactive pleasures given by videogames.

In view of this impoverishment of some children’s imagination, the point is not to reject this new approach of the child’s discourse. On top of animated pictures, which sound like tales as rich as dream tales, I chose to give it as much value while wondering at the same time about this new type of imagination which evolves more around a representation of things than a representation of words. These children do not want to be “pretty as a picture”, and they are not ideal patients who explain as much as we would want them to. Words do not seem to have distancing effects, and the feeling of incompleteness in which they live show us the narcissistic pains to which they seem to have been subjected. These children believe what they see and not anymore what they think. As Pagan children, they overinvest the magical thinking often inherited from traditional cultures, and they tell you that ghosts do exist because they’ve seen some on TV !

Videogames : a stake in view of the importance of tyrannical images

Before going into the details of the animation of the workshop on videogames, I thought it was important to make a detour through a positive thought on this new link : interactivity. Many children born with TV found themselves trapped in dramatic situations in which television seemed to be the only image that enabled them not to sink into a depressive breakdown. It makes “noise” and keeps the flabbergasted psyche awake or on the contrary a psyche that sinks into the abyss of depression’s white picture. “Dead” and/or narcissistic mothers find whatever they can to feel better. Toxic, mistreatment, the living room is lighted by the reviving picture of television, which shows beautiful things in which one can imagine oneself. A child sitting on his mother’s lap, or in a seat, facing television, desperately follows the thread of his mother’s eyes. The mother looks at the picture on television and, contrary to her son, will not see it as something persecuting or a reminder of her own maternal relationship, usually made of turmoil and hatred. This dark picture remains however an element that constitutes a hint of narcissistic disorders diagnosed in most children that we receive in the C.M.P (Medico-Psychological Centre) in Pantin. These babies, in love with the maternal eyes, will turn into what mesmerizes their mother. A mother mesmerized by television, a baby mesmerized by the maternal eyes, a triangulation appears, but its nature is incomplete. Television does not speak to us, nor does it give us answers. But this experience has a value ; it gives a hint of mediation in view of a humiliating and dualistic relationship. Furthermore, it shows the existence of a common attention, which is perceived as an evolution in a symbiotic relationship with the mother. The mirror replaced by television, a beginning of necessary symbolisation is implemented. This clinical vignette is an example of the baby’s active strength it when wants to triangle at all costs, in order to avoid being overwhelmed with too many death wishes. The “dead mother” does not leave much choice and televised pictures were a way not to sink into the void of a non-relationship. A compulsive entanglement, which goes through a narcissistic self-promotion, will create a baby addicted to pictures. Those pictures filled with illusions have a meaning, that of a lost paradise, where a maternal smile gives shape to this lost picture. These pictures will have the same effect than Proust’s Madeleine and as a teenager, overwhelmed with feelings of regression and challenging authority, he/she will watch “Alien” as an active and psyched way to fight against the mutant in him/her. These identifying movements, everybody knows them. But for the addict, they touch primary identifications, which mean that these pictures will overwhelm the teenager, while at the same time creating transformations in his/her desires.
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We live in a society where pictorial representations become marks that cannot be ignored. These marks are not real marks. These are not pictures, which, such as the divine commandments do not have a superego nature, they emanate from ideatory demands. Our society produces pictures, which makes us see what we can have.

If pictures were a kind of fatherly or motherly third-person, they would not have the value of superego, but rather that of an ideal or a tyrannical ego who would compel us to be in its own image. Parents, also lost in this societal spiral, convey those same values and hoist them as value standards of a well-being at all costs. Our society becomes narcissistic, as represented by pictures. Pathology of a representation of the ego, narcissistic wounds, fainting father, depressed and/or narcissistic mother, all ingredients are gathered here to generate visible symptoms ; just like behaviourists who only consider the patient according to what they can observe. Hyperactive children, violent behaviour disorders, deficient children, these are the children that we receive at the CMP in Pantin. Usually coming from underprivileged social and economical backgrounds, television lays enthroned in the middle of the living room. It is a way to open an idealising window on an atmosphere heavy with poverty. Let’s not concentrate of the sordid aspects of life because some children coming from bourgeois and/or intellectual backgrounds also come to us. For other reasons, these parents are lost in their own narcissistic flaws and turn their progenies into the champions of their own anti-depressive fights with usually unreachable ideals, confirming thus these children’s feeling of not measuring up. Again, it is not about surmoic discourses but idealising ones. The ego ideal is an authority part of the superego, but it possesses the attributes of secondary narcissism.

What is intriguing among many of these children that we receive, as sign of their pathologies, is the non-pleasure with which they play. Games are mainly approached on the stake aspect : lose or win. Narcissistic stakes again, one of my therapeutic aims is to help them find the pleasure of “as if” again. Symbolising defaults, they often perceive other people, meaning pictures, what interests us, only in terms of beautiful or not beautiful, or do not seem to recognize affects with depressive tonalities. This clinical painting sends us back to new pathologies in the form of “behavioural disorder” or hyperactive children. We will not go into the details of this kind of discussion.

Videogames will help serve our cause, which is, to give back an active part to this too big a passivity caused by too strong an idealisation of pictures. Videogames are made of pictures in which one can play. Most children fantasize that pictures can take shape, or on the contrary, they often wish to enter these pictures. Being next to their favourite heroes with which they can share their adventures. Videogames, with the creation of 3D, makes it possible. First-person games recreate something of the creative illusion to “save” the world. Repairing this other, often the mother, through intermediary pictures. One can also see videogames as a mis-en-scene of their own ambivalence, caused by the warlike context in which players immerge.

Clinical hypothesis on the creation of a videogame workshop inside the CMP for children and teenagers in Pantin

For four years now, I’ve been theoretically thinking about this new link : interactivity. In France, there are still too few clinicians interested in videogames, considered as a new form of therapeutic mediation. Most doctors that I’ve met who use videogames turn out to be occasional players themselves. This is actually my case and in the absence of clinical case, I got hooked and wondered about my unconscious mechanisms at work when I play.
Since then, I’ve been able to elaborate a beginning of clinical and psychoanalytically-oriented hypothesis, backed up by cases of “game addicts” received in private practise, on the use of videogames.

The context of videogames, contrary to what most media and political powers claim, are not violent, in the way Bergeret means it, but they stage aggressiveness, since they are contextualised : “I destroy aliens because they endanger the planet”. What interests us is to notice that most players, in moments that could be qualified as drops in life wishes and the emergence of negative affects, will use videogames with a temporal intensity, sometimes excessive. We could say for two hours daily. Thus, videogames, in their relation to the body (Teenagehood), in their potency drive, as well as in their combative context, will enable the subject’s ego to get “angry”. Videogames will work as virtual antidepressants through the emergence of anal and sadistic impulses, while being carried by a narration, the plot proposed by the videogame. In view of this collapse, sadism and/or sadomasochism remain on the side of life-keeping impulses.

Furthermore, videogames, through the embodiment of the avatar (virtual doppelganger visually visible), will enable the player not to embody anyone. These avatars are usually heroic figures who, with a feeling of narcissistic exaltation, will, using primary identifying processes, turn the player into the director and at the same time the spectator of the show being staged. This operation fixes a part of narcissistic wounds that reopen during moments of fragility when other people send the subject back to moments of incompleteness. For instance, one of my patient, an aggregated teacher in la Sorbonne, told me that after some humiliations that his wife made him suffer, he would rush on the videogame “Sim’s City”, to staged his grandiose fantasies, in a phenomenon that could be named “reigning hand”, where inhibition did not exist.
But the most fascinating aspect of videogames is this other virtuality, wrongfully called, artificial intelligence. It is indeed an illusion of artificial intelligence, since when one plays alone, enemies have been programmed to prevent one from being in the “now, right now”. These programmed characters’ purpose, most of the time enemies, is to put a spoke in one’s wheel. As rival figures, they represent the necessary third person between the player and the videogame.

Once again, contrary to what many videogames detractors think, they rarely just create some unburden. What is therefore interesting in terms of therapeutic practise, is that these rival or friendly figures, created by the game’s programmer, will be used by the player as a projection surface for his/her own figures. These figures usually become parental imagos and will, as in any work of art actually, make subconsciously identifying and counter-identifying processes emerge.

For these children who ’think in pictures”, videogames can even have self-therapeutic benefits. The danger will lie in their addictive aspect, when videogames are only considered as “killing-time” machines, or more precisely, when they won’t be associated with verbal representations.
Most children that I receive in psychotherapy in the CMP of Pantin, possess a games console at home. First, they talk about how surprising it is for a psychologist to be interested in this kind of hobby. Taking the risk to be seen more as an accomplice than a judge, I start playing with some in individual situations. Without entering into the details of some sessions, I realise that a videogame, in its technical tendency as well as in the effects it creates after the fact, carries therapeutic stakes which must be taken into account. This tendency is interesting, in the case of videogames where it is possible to play against each other or in collaboration, from the point of view of empathy because we look into the same direction, the screen, and after a mission is over, or while playing, we look at each other with the certainty of having experienced a common pleasure. Playing. This form of common attention gives this third object a kind of accelerating value within a transferantial relationship.

Seeing that these children cannot stand any frustrating situation, videogames, through their complexity and since they require from the player to start again in order to move forward in the story or to gain power, the patient-player must persevere. This idea of “perseverance” was first one of my clinical hypotheses, showing a certain interest within a group use. Repetition will also become interesting through the metaphor of compulsion with which the user must repeat defeats. Videogames, through their action, will enable some players to play their narcissistic inhibitions, endlessly repeating their defeats. Accepting to succeed a mission will have them face the pleasures of victory, which will enable them to go forward within the game plot.

I was also interested in looking at the other player as a spectator and not only as someone handling the joystick, someone with power. In the end, seeing that these children did not find the words to evacuate psychic tensions or noticing that words do not work as acts, in the Freudian sense, I thought that on the contrary, it was possible to use images in order to have them discuss, to have them “chat” ? As often, these hypotheses were badly used, but this new form of therapeutic mediation justified them. Before going into the details of the workshop and the selected children, I thought it was interesting to mention that globally, results are rather satisfying since out of four children, two do not come back anymore. One of them because his/her level at school has greatly improved and another one because he/she was able to get distance from a mortiferous relationship with his/her drug-addicted mother. The psychologist from the ASE (Social Help for Children) who is responsible for the follow-up, confirmed to me that the child asked his/her mother to “contact him/her when she feels better and not to disturb him/her while eating.” The two other children, I still see them during individual therapies.

I think that the success must be analysed on several levels, but it is obvious that the human level, which is the way I organise the workshop and the passion that I put in it must have had therapeutic effects. Nevertheless, the specificity of the videogame as an object does exist and we will attempt to describe it.

Virtual clinic and frame

Each academic year, we use a different videogame as a support for the workshop. In 2002-2003, we had selected the game Ico, in 2003-2004 the game Halo, in 2004-2005 the game My Life To Live, which is another version for console of the game Sim’s.

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In 2004-2005, during the videogame workshop ; we have played the scripted version of Sim’s : My Life to Live. The first stage of the game consists in creating one’s character, the way it looks, its colour, its clothes, its name and first name. The character has some objectives to do. The first objective is to fix the TV set. The avatar must therefore read a technical book taken from the library. Once the TV has been fixed, the character can watch it and select a type of film : love story, cartoon… As with the Sim’s, the character must control several gauges, such as the life gauge, knowing that they must be full enough for him/her to move forward. In the version used during the workshop, the character can discuss with his/her mother in different possible ways, like complimenting her, mocking her, dancing with her, asking her for money… In this version, with two characters -the avatar and the mother- the player can embody the mother and then, with a click, come back to the character.

The ultimate goal being for the created character to leave the mother. This is very frightening for many children because this is a mistreating mother, “proslavery” some children told me, because she does not do anything, always complains and asks her son or her daughter to fulfil her needs and obey. In order to be able to leave her, the character must achieve the aims previously mentioned. During talking time, therapists have many questions, but children too : “Where would you say the father is ? Why does this child live alone with his/her mother ?” We also ask questions about the functioning of the character : “Why is he/she doing that ?” During this time, a psychologist trainee writes down every action that children do. The computerization of these data will enable us to highlight the fact that, according to his/her psychic structures, a child chooses one action over another one.

Straightaway, the child is sent back to a foetus position in his/her mother’s body, what we call the “Body-home”. An important element of the game is to handle need gauges like the shower for instance, the toilets, hygiene, food, comfort, the state of the house… If the player does not take the need gauge into account, the character can sleep on the floor or urinates on him/herself. It is therefore important to warn the child of the rule of the game and of the importance of gauges, so that the character can “stand”, be fine and be able to act. Why do some children refuse to look at these gauges ? Children with a narcissistic problem would just like to relieve themselves of a body restraint connected to their relationships to their mother. The gauge would remind children, for whom the precocious relationships with their mother was a bad one, that they have a body. I think about two little obese girls with whom I play. They use exactly the same avoidance technique of the gauges in order to sublimate their body.

I have also noticed that two boys had chosen to embody their mother. However, in their own story, their mother is stronger than their father. The mother of the first one has had complete charge of her husband for many years. As for the other boy, he saw his dad being torn by his wife’s good will who had first divorced, and then accepted that he came back living with her. For these boys, it seems a better option to identify with the mother ; they feel more secure since they are on the side of power. But when they play, they are sometimes confused. They think they’ve embodied the boy while they have in fact chosen to embody the mother, and they become confused because the mother in the game is very mistreating while their own mother, in reality, is not. The game can be insufferable for them : because of their mother who is very foster, the mother in the game is inconceivable but she makes them wonder about their own sexed identification. So they make every effort to make a real mother out of the mother in the game, which means a woman who cooks and sweeps the floor.

Just their luck, in the game, the mother constantly refuses such tasks. One of the boys was so preoccupied by that that he tried to get round the problem, but his solution ended up turning against him. In the game, in order to move forward, it is necessary to obtain cooking points. For that, one must read cooking books so that the gauge fills in. Otherwise, the kitchen burns. When it does, an alarm above the gas cooker starts ringing and firemen arrive. This boy got the idea to sell the alarm. When fire started in the kitchen, his character burned alive, and not his mother ! This anecdote helped us understand a part of this boy’s story : it is as though he was indebted to his mother, as if he was in a position of sacrifice. In reality, two months after he was born, his dad left for Turkey and left his mother in France. Alone with her son, the mother had to take complete responsibility for him. The game enabled us to understand the child’s frightening debt towards his mother.

It happens often that children try to sabotage the rules of the game and thus to implement mistakes in the mis-en-scene as a way to declare the game as their own. Since it can be very frightening, we have decided, between therapists, to help the children, by telling them for instance, “Pay attention to the gauge !” This guidance is important. A victory implies to accept the bodily restraints I was referring to, and it is necessary for children to understand them when they start playing. In a second time, a self-promotion caused by the therapists’ benevolent attention enables the child to integrate these bodily restraints.
Surprisingly, we notice that children are always tied to this game, while we’ve promised them to start another game as soon as this one is over. They do not seem to be in a hurry, as though they had a lot to explore, as though they needed to repeat their obsessions, in order to talk about it. Children persevere because they can stage some of the inner fight that affects them. This is the trick. The virtual space give them access to their subconscious and the therapist’s role is, by being there, to help them access it, even thought it implies an aggressive scenario. This is what we call the work on the “unconscious unsaid” that therapists always try to promote.

I remember a little girl who was obese, and who repressed her imagination a lot. At the beginning, she played with Playmobils and wanted absolutely to re-enact what she saw on the box. It was very boring for me… I proposed her to play to Sim’s. Each house in the game has a mailbox. With the joystick, she started clicking like a crazy person on the mailbox, saying : “There’s no mail !” Since I play the part of a fantastical prosthesis, I answered : “From whom do you expect a letter ?” She answered : “I don’t know, I don’t have anything to say”. I started inventing in order to genitalize her, and I told her : “Maybe you expect a letter from your lover ?” Since then, this little girl has started to develop, to awaken. More joy can be found in the way she plays, and she starts having fun, to sabotage some rules… For her, it can be that her lover is a father figure. However, this 8-year-old child’s parents have divorced pretty soon, and the mother does not feel well. One can think like André Green, and see that, for this little girl, the father represents a sort of bodily sublimation, free from any bodily potency. This is why, instead of criticising videogames, I would like to remind that they can also have a sublimatory function, which means that they can help turn away from lewd objects and go beyond them. They enable us, through this mixing between body and image to reintegrate the primary and secondary processes between something archaic and genital. Sublimation can help to reinvest knowledge.

If aggressive impulses towards maternal objects have not been expressed, it is possible that some girls are unable to invest this knowledge. The importance of a symbolic murder of the father is often talked about ; for girls, the problem is the same as with the mother. If a little girl, while playing Sim’s allows herself to attack the motherly figure, feeling that there won’t be, consequently, any punishment, she can notably, thanks to this “do as if”, reintegrate knowledge within reality, her aggressive impulses having been expressed in the game. Pictures work therefore as acts and make all primary processes emerge.

After three years of experience, it seems to me that several videogames used in the workshop in the Centre in Pantin, worked, for the children who visited it, as a symbolic training providing a significant work on themselves and their parental imagos, which means, on the way a child sees his/her parents. We still lack hindsight in order to draw conclusions from this new promising experience. But we know that therapeutic effects are as varied as the number of children who visited the centre.

Within a solitary practise, videogames can have a self-curative value ; they can be a symbolic training for adults. One of my patients, coming from a self-righteous family, had her parents believe that she was only interested in classical music, while she was the leader of a rock band. Her father could have understood this choice ; not her mother who thought her daughter was a good girl who only practised flute. Telling her mother she was in a rock band, she would have been disowned by her ! The fact remains that this young woman had to face a problem within her rock band that she could not solve : she had to split up with one of the girls in the band, older than her, and she could not tell her about it. Overwhelmed with inhibition, she felt unable to tell her : “You do not work enough, the band wants you out.” However, the night before the settling of scores, this young woman played Age of Empire II for hours, and not just any part : she played the “Joan of Arc Campaign”. On the following day, she was able to tell easily what she had to tell her band members, because she had felt, as she told me, just like Joan of Arc, as a female warrior. The videogame had trained her symbolically to increase her self-esteem, in order to fight for a good cause without feeling like fighting a motherly figure in her fantasy. By getting rid of this rock band member, she could acknowledge her own achievement.

This solitary practise enabled her to increase trust in herself. By freeing herself from bodily restraint in the reality of the game, this young woman could presumably free herself from a mortiferous relationship she had with her mother. But a self-therapeutic use of videogames only produces effects for a short-term period, to enact a decision for instance, like in the example I’ve just mentioned. This explains why high players have found in videogames an antidepressant function, but it can stop here. In the case of a therapeutic follow-up, a whole work of working through (1) happens between the time of awareness, spent mourning a previous state, and the time of change. One cannot break up with a symptom !

In all cases, the avatar reveals the person’s fantasies and ideals ; it enables one to play with unexecutable desires or fears. Fears and desires belong to the same category : one can be afraid of one’s desires or be attracted to one’s fears. The fear of desires refers to love and sexuality. Everyone has fantasies, while perceiving that acting them would be lived as going beyond the limit, which can be frightening. Conversely, the desire to overcome one’s fears, which can result in a taste for travels, for adventure or for parachute jump, can also be found in virtuality which enables one, even through a solitary practise, to have a better knowledge of oneself and of one’s limits.

This is particularly true of the Sim’s, which is the best-selling game in the world. This game proposes an identifying process similar to real TV in which the TV viewer looks for a fellow human being. In order for Sim’s to be considered as a cultural object, I had organised a symposium in January 2005 in the Centre Pompidou. Because of a remark in the audience concerning its extreme platitude, I realised how important banalities were when trying to understand the complexity of interaction between human beings. I had spotted that, behind a denial of this for being banal, quite a pronounced anti-American ideology was expressed, as if American banalities were different from ours, which we refuse to see. However, many things can be built from banalities. If a 16-year old boy is asked “what is your ideal in life ?”, and answers “get married, buy a suburban house, have a dog and three kids”, people will think that it is depressing, because it is banal. For the sake of realism, I dispute the validity of this hypocritical rejection of banality. Drinking, sleeping, this is banal too. However, this is in the way we do it that relation stakes emerge. Why would anyone criticize Sim’s for being banal since so many people like this game, which favours, in its extreme banality that I acknowledge, beneficial realization ?

Michael Stora

(1) "The slow process of reconstructing the psychic scenarios hidden in the archives of the mind and recognizing the characters who play the leading roles has a name in psychoanalytic theory : It is called psychical work or the work of elaboration. Freud talked frequently of the work (Arbeit accomplished by the mind : Dreamwork (Traumarbeit), the work of mourning (Trauerarbeit), working out (psychische Verarbeitung), and working through (Durcharbeitung). It is the two latter terms with which we are concerned here. Laplanche and Pontalis in their authoritative book, The Language of Psychoanalysis (1973), have carefully delineated Freud’s distinction between the two forms of elaboration, psychical working out and working through. Working through refers more specifically to the psyche’s work in the psychotherapeutic process and to the painstaking constructions involved in the course of psychoanalytic treatment.”

Joyce McDougall, Theatres of the Mind, Free Assn.Bks. (November 1986)