Dr. George Vaillant studied one group of 237 male Harvard Graduates for decades – a group of men which included President John F. Kennedy and longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee – and observed that not a single one lived a life without, “a full share of difficulty and private despair.” Called The Grant Study, the lives of these men inspired Vaillant’s classic psychological texts on alcoholism, aging well, and coping. The public-at-large – gamers included – might understand how the body reacts to breast cancer, mononucleosis, and a broken leg, but recovering from mental illness can still seem a bit arcane. This is where games shine, I think. They have a lot to teach us about good and bad coping.
Vaillant writes, “for centuries fever and pus were synonymous with disease, yet they are actually the body’s adaptive response to invading bacteria. If complications do not occur, such responses are normal; it is the external infection that is unusual.” So it was with coping. These inner processes reflected the human ability to be creative, in the face of extreme outside conflict. Vaillant was ever amazed by coping mechanisms, writing that, “I can not explain why specific defenses emerge and not others. In my opinion, the origin of defenses is as multidetermined as the origins of humor and art.” But he could observe which defenses cropped up, mining his specific terminology from – among others – Sigmund and Anna Freud.
If the shit going on in life is atrociously bad, and support is utterly lacking, people sometimes develop the most intense of the coping mechanisms: the psychotic. The paranoid delusions, denial, and gross distortions of reality. It might be tempting to assume a hardcore raider as having something like denial, if they quite literally reject certain parts of their lives. Sometimes the opposite is true. In games, a lot of the thefts, sexist or racist trolling, and general shitty behavior gets justified as a-okay, since “the game isn’t real.”
To Vaillant, immature mechanisms were the step up from the psychotic, but they still bespoke problems with intimacy. They were the escape of fantasy, projection, hypochondria, and passive-aggression. They’re hard to improve, though it’s possible given time, a therapist’s help, friendly interventions, and getting better people into our lives.
Schizoid fantasy – the tendency to fall headlong into books, TV, and other escapes – is I think tricky for games because it’s so common everywhere. We all have our safe places, and in my experience the harshest critics to gaming drop exponentially more time and cash in their lives as barflies, foodies, and serial Vegas vacationers. I’d venture that the “escape” we spend so much time chiding comes in two flavors, one of which probably deserves to get sorted more on the level of mature coping. I take my cue here from Jane McGonigal, and her 2013 Game Developer’s Conference talk, There is No Escape. She differentiated between escape for self-expansion, and escape for self-suppression. In the former, we might drop into games for a little energizing fun, but as life gets more challenging, we play less. We still take care of things. In the latter, when life gets harder, play becomes a downward spiral. We play rather than fix things. This is probably my favorite way to differentiate where escape moves from being healthy, and useful, to where it starts to drag us down. Whether you’re getting lit at the local dive, or diving into the depths of Ahn’Qiraj.
In projection, we attribute our own prejudices and intimacy problems on others. We assume that the raid leader is abrasive, when we’re the one barking more than a dockload of sea lions. Hypochondria transforms unbearable aggression, intimacy, or loneliness into physical pain. Passive-aggression is openly redirecting anger towards others onto yourself, typically with less than stellar results. Acting out probably figures into some of what Jane is talking about with escape, though it is a separate extra layer. It involves impulsive motor behavior, or throwing tempers, or failure by way of drugs, perversion, and/or excess fuckuppery, just so we don’t need to be aware of something unconscious and bothersome.
Such ridiculousness will turn other people off to being around you – no matter what world you’re in – but to a far lesser degree than the psychotic.
Neurotic defenses were to Vaillant healthy enough, and common in folks acclimatizing to the stress of everyday life. Intellectualization is overthinking for the sake of not acting. We isolate, rationalize, ritualize, distract ourselves with busywork, and use magical thinking in order to not actually do anything about whatever’s bothering us. Repression is that aggravating, “oh, darn, I forgot” that we sometimes get from the people in our lives.
Displacement is taking strong feelings, and then pinning them on someone or something we don’t care about so much. Hostile jokes and caricature, prejudice, we’re getting it out of our system in a place where it feels safer. Finally, there’s dissociation, where we drastically change who we are, our own identity, so we don’t have to deal with certain of life’s bullshit. It can be a sudden devil-may-care-attitude, or abandoning responsibility, just for a little while. Vaillant writes that, “Dissociation is more comprehensible to others than distortion, more considerate of others, and less prolonged than acting out.”
Finally, mature coping is the realm of those who can balance the world, the people in it, and their own bad selves. Altruism, be it through philanthropy, service to others, or just our showing up for the friend in need, is instinctually gratifying. Humor, to Vaillant, “lets you call a spade a spade” – it was a way to express the underlying, oft-ugly truth of a thing – to the inclusion and enjoyment of all parties. Suppression was the conscious to mostly-conscious decision to not pay attention to bullshit. It included, “looking for silver linings, minimizing acknowledged discomfort, employing a stiff upper lip, and deliberately postponing but not avoiding.” Anticipation was the sometimes-harsh shoring of defenses, in “anticipation of death or surgery, separation,” or to accommodate the difficult leaps advised by a psychotherapist. Sublimation, the last of the mechanisms described in Adaptation to Life, comes when we act on our inner desires in healthy ways. Our, “expressing aggression through pleasurable games, sports, and hobbies” or perhaps romance, “during a real courtship.” Making good art was Vaillant’s “classic example.” Sublimation pours our efforts into the pursuits we care about, and the results can be grand.
Near the end of Adaptation to Life, Vaillant goes to the home of a Grant Study participant whom he gives the moniker, “Alan Poe.” Vaillant says that the bedraggled guy reminds him of either a tug captain, or a French Resistance Leader. The man lived on almost nothing, frankly chatted about the benefits of rampant alcoholism, and would later blithely say of Vaillant’s early book drafts,
“…the end judgments, the final assessments, seem simplistic. As I read over the material, they seem to come down to having a good income, a stable family, reasonable job satisfaction, a capacity to love, and a capacity to play.” That a person, “either copes satisfactorily by mastering his life, or he limps along.” Alan Poe asked Vaillant, further along in the letter, “What’s the difference between a guy who at his final conscious moments before death has a nostalgic grin on his face as if to say, “Boy, I sure squeezed that lemon” and the other man who fights for every last breath in an effort to turn time back to some nagging unfinished business?” This changed the course of Vaillant’s research. It showed him that maybe good living was just a balancing act.
Random misfortune or poor choices might lead to a broken leg, but that big cast could also be the mark of some scintillating hiking, biking, or asskicking. We need to let that heal, but it’s just as important to get back out there, to live.
“Anxiety and depression,” writes Vaillant, “like blisters and fractures, become the price of a venturesome life. In daring to live and grow up, we create disparities in our inner balance between conscience and instinct, and between that precarious balance and the people we love. True, doctors can lance boils and desensitize phobias, remove cinders and anesthetize anxiety. But much of psychiatry, like much of medicine, becomes simply supporting natural healing processes.”
It’s not about being blindingly happy, at all times. Some of the “happiest” aging gentlemen in the Grant Study only fit in that category because they’ve never taken the time to look at their lives. They seem to have rated the most happy, in standardized tests, because they took life’s lemon without ever really inspecting it. Alan Poe’s response was to take a lemon and squeeze. Not just dutifully eat it, to keep from getting scurvy. He didn’t just cope, to get by, to keep contented.
Alan Poe sat at one extreme, but he’s a reminder of that curious balance to be struck, between coping with blisters, fractures, or compulsions, and having the unhinged fun that creates them in the first place.