Let's Talk Balance

(here's the slides PDF: Tools to Keep Play Balanced!)

At this last PAX I got to sit next to a clinician who I have tremendous respect for, (the very soon-to-be-Dr.) Anna DiNoto, and we got to tell a room of gamers some of our tools for balancing play. I thought that I would share that talk with you here.

We forward the whole thing by making it clear our talk isn’t about addiction, or “Internet Gaming Disorder,” as it’s labeled in an appendix of the DSM-V. We just wanted to cover tools, simple things people could do, if they were playing and/or internetting a little more than they’d like.

step one: assess

The first thing you’ll want to do is assess your play (or internet use, if that’s your deal) as accurately as possible. It’s not easy. In going back and forth about this, we talked about some tools we could use, and I made a handout which basically tracked the duration of your stay in these places. I think it’s slide 8/37. It lists maybe “facebook from 5:55 to 7pm,” then “Skyrim from 10pm to 1:13am,” and so on. Then we mark how intense it was on a scale of one to ten, one being that you were mostly focused on something else, cooking dinner, some paperwork, scintillating television drama. Ten would be that you were so focused that you left a pizza in the oven for roughly two hours.

I have some funny stories about burnt pizzas.

This is a good place to mention (again, I know) none of this piece is clinical advice. In person, Anna is extremely good, really professional about making that clear when she speaks. And I’m not a mental health professional; I’m just a gamer. I co-wrote a book on gaming addictions, but don't have treatment experience.

Back to tracking your play, and tracking that every day. Keyloggers might help, roommates might help (though some of us get defensive). You need to figure out where you’re at, so you have an accurate idea of what you’re trying to balance.

Next, before doing anything else, figure out where your stress is. If we notice that arguments with the husband usually lead to longer sessions of play, useful info. Sometimes games stress us out. The point here is to figure out what our “triggers” are. Figuring out what cues us off is essential to “hacking” those patterns, and being able to eventually redirect those to something we’d rather be doing.

(to jump ahead here: Post it notes are Anna’s go-to. If you interrupt your usual patterns with post-it notes, say one near the hook where you set your keys, or on the kitchen counter, you can stop your usual routines. Put one on your laptop, on your bedroom door.)

step two: plan

After assessing play, the second step is to make a plan. There are three kinds of plan, in general. Abstinence is breaking from games, temporarily or permanently. Harm reduction is switching to games or behaviors that might be less problematic. Play reduction is taking a favorite game – say League of Legends – and playing it less.

I actually do enjoy the occasional abstinence from games, altogether. Sometimes, when I have a big project or just need a break, I’ll drop games voluntarily for awhile. Hilarie Cash mentioned that at ReSTART, she typically sees even the worst withdrawal symptoms wash off of hardcore gamers after a few weeks. Abstinence can be useful, but Anna was quick to point out the number of times a parent would decide it was time to simply remove a game (without understanding why they’re playing it – it’s just a game after all). The graphic descriptions she’s given me of the consequences are startling even for me (she changed identifying patient details, exactingly, every time – she’s a pro). But we’re talking hundreds of thousands in dramatic property damage, and some pretty tragic self-damage. Just throwing that in there.

Harm reduction is pretty easy. If you like the vast landscapes of Warcraft, try playing Proteus, or maybe Dear Esther. If you’re a hardcore raider, try switching to anything else. Convince your raid friends to come with you, if you can. Raiding – in my research – held one of the few statistically significant connections to patterns we didn’t actually enjoy very much, the job loss, sleep loss, depression, etc. Addiction, in other words.

Some games have play reduction tools built in. Warcraft’s parental controls have it. The Xbox has it.

As you start to plan, make a boredom list. A list of things – besides just the games that make you stumble – you like doing. Creating nontoxic food and getting sleep were on mine, though Anna rightly reminded me that at that point I’m going past “simple balance.” Still, taking walks and cooking well, shopping for good food, that sort of thing, I’d say that they fit. When you do start to decrease how much you’re playing, there’ll be a void in your schedule. There are a lot of good basics to fill that time with, and there are some great ones.

Writing, drawing, and the myriad forms of making art. Getting involved in city government. Designing your own games. Taking college courses on topics that interest you, be they marine biology, architecture, or (yay!) games.

We can use timers – whether it’s an egg timer, alarm clocks that shower the room with puzzle pieces, or the color-coded Time Timers – to make ourselves more mindful of how much we’ve played. To become aware. In general, following the plan should help you get to be more aware of how you’re using your time. The point is to build a general mindfulness. I’ve learned a lot of good things in all this time gaming, but mindfulness was one of the most important.

step three: maintain

The third step is maintainance. To hold your progress in the long term, you need to reinforce your progress in the short term. In other words, don’t forget to treat yourself.

You want to give yourself “dings” for your real progress at keeping things balanced. Even better if you can apply meaningful fun and engagement, to keep yourself to the plan you want. You can also take cheat days. Like, with most successful diets, there’s usually a day out of the week where you can have pizza and beer with some good company.

I do, anyway. I’m still working on all this, but I still enjoy games for longer than three hours at a time. I just – far more often than I used to – get meaningful things done at work, at home, or for my bad self before those mini-binges. Those sometimes turn into missed bedtimes and some mild regret, especially when I’m not with my good gaming buddies, so I have to be careful. Still it’s been awhile since I’ve vanished for a month straight. So that’s good.

step four: revise

Finally, remember that you’re human. This shit is a challenge if you haven’t exactly been the balance king, in the past. If that’s the case, some professional help, with a solid local therapist? Highly recommended.

You’ll need to reassess your plan, as life changes, and having someone whose job is to help you, is sort of like having a professional gamer coaching your gamerly prowresses. Most clinicians just charge a lot less than, say, the pros at Curse Gaming.

Anyway, those were a few suggestions we threw out, to deal with keeping things sane to begin with. I’m not a therapist, and I don’t know what you’re going through, but I do want you to be able to keep play balanced with everything else. Hope it helps.

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