kelli dunlap

kelli dunlap

My name is Kelli Dunlap. I'm a doctor of clinical psychology. I live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Okay. I have a very interesting relationship with videogames. On one hand I'm a gamer. I'm a lover of videogames. The last week has seen obscene amounts of Halo 5 being played. I'm very much in the community. I own and run an eSports league for the Halo community as well, so I'm kind of a moderator, community-level organizer there and wear the hats of community manager, PR, content manager, and league administrator.

And then grown-up Kelli has a research and clinical interest in the intersection of games and mental health. So, what do they do well? What could be improved upon? Are they really this cure-all or, on the other hand, the doom of society? And just finding out what really is going on when people play games, how games can affect people, and I'm also, beyond that, in a Master's program studying game design and persuasive play. [Laughs.] So, even beyond the clinical aspect I'm looking at things like game mechanics and how that motivates player behavior or how to use emotions to create an experience for a player as the designer. So that's my very broad job in games.

[Laughs.] So you're kind of into games is what you're saying.

A little bit.

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[Laughs.] A little bit. So, when we spoke before, and you did not just mention this, but you are looking into a number of different practical applications of a wide variety things. I don't really want to lead with this because I think it'd be selfish, but something you mentioned before was looking at whether game design has a place in journalism.

Yeah.

So, can you tell me a little bit about that and what made you start to wonder that?

Well, it was a completely selfish reason. I went to a Red Cross event, and it was on international humanitarian law, but they had a specific bent on how games can help us talk about these really important issues. And so, I went, and met Lindsay Grace, who is actually the director of the American University Game Lab, where I'm doing my current studies. I spoke with him because I was very excited about the thing and he told me about this fellowship program that American had launched the day before called JoLT, which stands for "Journalism and Leadership Transformation." It was explained to me as looking at the intersection of game design and journalism: What can we take as people who design games, people who play games, and apply it to journalism with the idea that people really like to play games? Not as many people like to read the news.

I've heard about this.

Yeah! So, this idea that what do games do that draw people in and maybe what can journalism take away from that to maybe increase audience or financial stability, those kinds of things. So that's the very first part.

I got the fellowship, which was fantastic, and part of my work is I have my academic side, but on the other hand I'm working with the JoLT team, which is myself and two other Master's level JoLT fellows, and we have a really great team of people in the school of communications as well as what are called professional fellows. So, people in journalism who wanted to help and be part of the project but didn't necessarily have time to take the courses because they're currently embedded in journalism and might not have time. So, for the last 11 months we've just been exploring: Is this even a topic worth exploring further? Is there a place for games in journalism or game design in journalism?

I think when most people think about games and journalism, they think about news games. So, games specifically about a news topic. September 12th is a really famous one, about 10 or 11 years old now. The little Flash games you'll see on The New York Times or WaPo, the spelling bee one on WaPo was really popular. Just small things like that. And that's definitely a part of it. But we're looking at more the underlying psychological and motivational things that happen in games. You know, why does someone put 300 hours into World of Warcraft? Why does somebody buy into the fiction of the Halo universe to the point where they'll cosplay as a character and they'll know more facts about the Halo universe than they maybe know about their local community? They can name all the leaders of the Covenant, but they can't name their senator. What is it about games creating this sometimes fiction, sometimes non-fiction realities and can we translate that to a journalism space?

So you're investigating that now among many other things.

Yeah. So, we got some preliminary findings, we're writing up the report. It's our first year, so we have to hope that we get funded again to continue searching, but all signs so far are positive. Lights are green that this is a place that journalism people are interested, game-design people are becoming interested in that didn't really know it existed. Before I was in this program, I had no idea this kind of thing even existed. And then the consumers are interested as well.

Why is it, then, and this would fall under that binary of videogames are the panacea -- but why does that binary seem to pop up so much where either they're the scourge of society, that they're going to doom us all or they're going to save us all?

I think that's anything. Human beings tend to function better with absolutes. We like to put things into nice, neat little boxes because it helps us process the information.

I mean take, for example, snakes. A lot of people have a fear of snakes. They don't care whether it eats the black widow or would bite them and kill them. They don't care if it's a gardener snake or a black mamba. They know snakes scary bad, because it helps us -- instead of standing there going, "You know, that snake is rattling its tail and showing its fangs. I wonder if this is a good snake?" In that amount of time, you could get bit and die.

Yeah.

So, whether you want to say it's an evolutionary advantage, which it probably is, or just common sense. Whatever you want to call it, if easier things fit into what psychology people would call schemas, or these nice little boxes about "this is what this thing is, I know how to react to this thing" because it takes a lot of processing power off of our brain.

What do you think is eroding that middle ground, or the more reasonable way of thinking about things? Is it really just human nature plus the Internet?

Just so I understand, you're asking about why is it becoming more polarized? More black and white?

Yeah. I mean, why is it not becoming less black and white? This gets into some of the stuff about addiction, but I think a lot of people really into videogames are unaware of the sort of stigmas or perceptions that are still alive and well. Like, I don't know when, but you had mentioned someone recently had compared videogames to cocaine.

Oh yeah.

I guess they're both expensive habits but beyond that I don't really see the parallels?

[Laughs.] Cocaine is probably cheaper.

Maybe. [Laughs.] I'll have to take your word for it as a PhD holder.

[Laughs.] Yeah. I don't know if it's become more black and white. I don't think it's become more polarized. I think it's kind of been that way forever, it's just what is being talked about is what changes.

So, you know, jazz used to be this horrible, sinful thing and now we think of it as culture and part of the American experience, part of what defines us as a nation and part of our history. There's a fantastic xkcd comic that came out just a few days ago that started with a panel on, "Oh no! Books! People are so immersed in the world of their book that they don't look up to see the world around them." And it progressed from about 1810 to 2015 all about these different things that have come up. You know, the Walkman, social isolation is the new norm. There's always something that we look at and we go, "Good or bad?"

Whatever it is changes over time.

What do you think has been the most outlandish thing you've heard as far as how videogames are going to save the world?

Oh, man.

Maybe you don't have to pick just one, but maybe a couple if you're struggling to think of your favorite.

I don't know if it's a single instance, but it's something that I see over and over and over again.

Yeah.

And it's not even games themselves, it's gamification. So, this idea that you can just take parts of games, slap them onto something else, and expect people to engage with them the way that they engage with a fully fleshed-out game, I find that incredibly offensive. [Laughs.]

As a psychologist, I find it very -- I don't want to say "offensive." Behaviorist. Humans are nothing but a string of behaviors and if you reward one thing, then they'll do it kind of processing. I think it's too simplistic.

And that's what really bothers me is -- I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "Oh, we'll just add points to it and then they'll like it." Nope. Nope. That's not how any of that works.

[Laughs.] What is the damage or harm that can be done by deploying something like that without understanding how to apply the craft?

I think the only harm comes back on games themselves. I think it continues to lead to the idea that games are simple, that they can just be created on the fly, that they're easy to create, that there's not really any design involved in them. I think it really simplifies them to -- if there were going to be harm, that's where it would be.

There's no harm in the person playing or using the app because what's gonna happen is at some point they're gonna get bored and they're gonna walk away. Or, if they're more of a completionist, then they're gonna try and achieve and get their 100 percent. But those aren't necessarily inherently harmful.

But games really struggle for being perceived outside of the game's level of being valid and artistic and important and complex and deserving of rich analysis and understanding of what is a game. I mean, I can't even tell you. Before this semester started, I probably could have told you and I would have been wrong. These deep philosophical questions about what is a game and when does it stop being a game and it's incredibly fascinating from a lot of different points and I think when you use points and you tie it to the word "game," as in gamification, you're making a connection between the two that these are somehow related, somehow equivalent, and that is not true. That can be a problem to games.

If you are outside of games and you want to know about the ways that games are valid as a medium, where are you supposed to go and find that out? In my experience with this, a lot of people don't know where to turn to find out. I think they feel out of place at your typical games website.

So, hi, my name is Kelli Dunlap and I like games.

[Laughs.] They should just email you?

Yeah! Just email me.

Okay.

I've have had that happen frequently.

Are you serious? Oh, yeah, because you're sort of seen as an ambassador to this world because you're deep in the weeds of this foreign territory.

Yeah. On both sides. When I was going through my doctoral program -- and I still get emails from my cohort saying things like, "Hey, I'm working with a kid. He said he plays Minecraft. What is that?" Or, "He says he's playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and he unlocked the hot coffee mod. I don't understand what that is."

There's this association outside of the games level that videogames and the Internet are the same thing. [Laughs.] So I get lots of questions regarding just the Internet in general. One of my cohort was asking about -- saying that her client "tumbles," but it wasn't gymnastics and so she had no idea what her client was doing. And so I told her, "Well, I think she means 'Tumblr.'" And then I had to explain what Tumblr was. So, yes, as an ambassador in the psychology community, at least in my small cohort, yes, definitely the ambassador for, "What is this game? Is it appropriate? What content is in it?" That kind of thing.

Is that just because all that stuff is accessed through a computer? That that conflation is happening?

I just think it's so beyond their scope. Like you said, they don't know where to start.

And they could Google it or they could just send an email to somebody they know who they know is gonna give them correct information as opposed to going to a website and figuring out, "Is this legitimate? Is it not?"

So that's one way of doing it, is just email me.

Another way -- a site that I sometimes write for called Pixelkin, and it is setup to be the go-to family-friendly zone. They break down the content that's in games, what ages would be appropriate for those games, how parents can get involved in the game. They break down things like rating and content. The last piece I wrote for them was actually a critical analysis of the American Psychological Association's recent taskforce that reported on violent games definitively linking to aggression. And of course, as it was a critical analysis, I told what I actually thought about it.

Yeah, I read that.

It's just kind of this collection of resources that is written in very accessible language of people who had the same struggles. That they wanted to talk and share about the games that their kids were playing, but there was no place to do it, so they created one.

You said that videogame designers and psychologists have so much in common but there is a disparity happening. You said "considering that many people find happiness or even solace in playing games in the game community, you'd love it if games and society in general could stop using mental illness or their approximation thereof as a plot device or character motivation or setting ambience just because, 'Why not? He's totally crazy.'"

Right. So, as far as the disparity, there's a gulf between how we regard psychology and how we regard games. Psychology, most of the time, is seen as a science, as something that can be relied upon. People go to therapists, psychologists to seek help, it's seen as a scientific profession unless you are, like my brother-in-law, a physicist who continually reminds me that I am not really science. So, thanks Bill.

On the other hand, when people think about games, they think about frivolity, childishness, a waste of time, something that you play, and play itself is a waste of time for an adult. Like, for a child, it's fine, but for an adult, you work. You don't play.

Which, I think is far more damaging than anything else. But, there's already this dichotomy that one is professional, grown-up science and one is childish waste of time. There's a lot of judgment values applied to them. I know I see it in my mental-health circles, especially with older clinicians. You talk about having an interesting game, and there's an automatic association with addiction, violence, or overall just bad stuff.

And I get that a lot from that side of my identity. I go into games, and I hear them talking about structuring motivation and hitting the flow channel which, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi -- he was the first one to use the word "flow" and kind of identified what it was. He was a psychologist, if I remember right. And things like, "How do you create a skill gate?" Which is, a player cannot advance in the game until they have mastered a certain thing. So, in Mario, you cannot advance in Mario unless you can jump, because otherwise the goomba's gonna get you.

So, you've proven that you know this skill and then you are able to move forward, which is very psychological in nature. Well, let's be honest. Everything we do is psychological.

[Laughs.] Right. Yeah.

So, there's this overlap when I'm learning about game mechanics, I'm just having flashbacks to different mostly behavioral theories that I got from psychology. And so I do think they are a lot more similar than maybe either side wants to admit. Psychologists tend to think again of games as being frivolous, a waste of time. In my limited experience in the game space it's, "Oh, those scientists or those researchers, they just want to harvest our data and make a game that's not fun and I don't want to do that." Which, I can totally respect as well. There's a lot of distrust on both sides.

That's such a weird thing to be paranoid about, though.

Well, nobody wants to make a game that sucks.

[Laughs.] Yeah, but --

And unfortunately most games that are either for mental-health reasons or educational reasons, they suck.

This is where you drew the literal Venn diagram in our emails: The only time that those two fields you mentioned interface is pertaining to violence and addiction.
I used to do a time capsule column for EGM in one of its earlier iterations, so, two EGMs ago? And this goes back at least into the '70s. Even before games were super-mainstream, they were being blamed for kids getting bad grades in school or bullying. So, that's nothing new, but why is that still the case all these years later, what you said?

It's so difficult because, again, this comes down to the brain. People don't necessarily want to think about all the context around it. So, for example -- I think we talked about this, too.

Yeah.

Arcades, because they had pinball machines in them were seen as super-seedy. Pinball machines, before we knew them, were more like slot machines where you'd put in a coin and you might get something out of it.

So, we're thinking, like, the early 1930's era when crime was high and crime bosses and mobs and gambling and fast women and jazz and all that. [Laughs.] All that was going on.

[Laughs.]

So there was this connection between, "Oh, well, this looks like gambling, therefore it is gambling, and we should be morally appalled by it." And so, in some places, pinball machines were actually banned for about 40 years. There's a famous photo of Mayor LaGuardia of New York just taking a sledgehammer to a pinball machine. There are stacks and stacks of old newspaper articles talking about pinball raids as people go in to flush them out as if they were some kind of seedy underground illegal gambling ring or something like that. And then videogames started appearing next to them because of technological advances and videogames were seen as more respectable than the pinball machine, which I thought was just very funny.

And you want to talk about worlds colliding? I have an article from, I think, 1980-something that was a psychoanalytic analysis of playing videogames at the arcade versus pinball, and for anybody who might not be familiar, psychoanalysis? [Sigmund] Freud is probably the name that should come to mind. So, as you might expect with that kind of thing, they talked about pinball as being incredibly sexual because there was this steel shaft that thrusts itself into the machine so that a small projectile can find a hole and when the player plays pinballs, their body moves and grinds into the machine and it's a very erotic experience, whereas a videogame arcade console, there's just a single stick -- which, of course, could still be phallic -- and two button presses, and so it's a much less erotic experience.

I never thought of it that way.

And now you will never forget. Next time you walk up to a pinball machine: "He grips the steel phallus..." [Laughs.]

To you, I mean, is that like reading an article from a phrenologist? Is that just laughably outdated?

I feel it's appropriate in the time that it was written from the clinical perspective of the person who wrote it. But it's the same thing to me as saying, "Hey, you know, maybe we should do some blood-letting to get your yellow humor down." Something like that.

[Laughs.]

I appreciate that in the time, it was the thing, and it was the best they had, and they were trying to understand something that they didn't understand. So, huge, always mad props for that. Trying to understand something you don't understand. But you would hope that 10 years or a thousand years later that you're not using the same thing.

But you're saying that, in some ways, are some of the roots as videogames and the people who play them being seen as social deviance as a precursor to some of the literal social deviance that we have going on right now around games?

I mean, they came up alongside pinball, which had a lot of negative connotations to it. And it's really easy to, again -- human beings, we like to associate and put things in nice, neat little boxes. And if they're side by side, they're obviously related. [Laughs.]

But one of the things that videogames did that maybe nothing else had done before is videogames do. Other mediums don't. That's one of the most difficult things to explain. You know, you read a book, but you don't do a book.

You don't play a book. You don't play TV. But you play a game. You are an active participant in the creation and storytelling of a game, which is something you don't really do in any other medium. The closest approximation is Choose Your Own Adventure books, and if you read the Goosebumps ones, it was really "choose how you die" books because that's how it always ended. And I think a lot of fear comes from that, in that you're no longer watching somebody get shot up on TV or you're not reading about somebody get shot up. You are actually "shooting" someone. Games are the only medium where we say "I did this."

I don't know how many school shootings there have been recently. I've lost track. But there was one much closer to when we last spoke, and maybe we talked about this then, but in the weird twist of fate and whoever finding my inbox, I got an email from Univision of all places, asking not so much for a comment on the record but an explanation of why it is that people link people who play games to school shootings.
Which I'm sure you're aware of that connection that's attempted to be made. What I do tend to notice is, well, no one ever says about all the people who were shot who play videogames? Or what about the fact that the shooter probably also drank milk?

Right.

I don't know what my question is, other than it's 2015 and some of these really antiquated notions are still alive and well.

Again, I like to always go back to the fact that our brains are lazy.

But yeah, our brains are always looking to cut corners. Ask anybody who's taken one of those online quizzes that'll show you a word, and the word is not in order but you can still read it type of thing --

Where there's two "the"s or something?

Yeah. Our brains look for patterns. They are pattern-seeking machines, because if you can find a pattern, you can take a shortcut, therefore using less energy. This was a lot more important when consuming energy was a full-time job. I'm not worried about where my next meal is coming from, so my brain doesn't really need to worry about conserving energy, but it does because it's kinda old. Not my brain. But the brain in general.

So, one of the things is when something scary happens. When something bad happens, we want to ascribe reasons to it because that helps us feel safe. If we can put our finger on something and say, "That's why it happened," then we can take steps to make it sure it doesn't happen to us.

So, think about ancient Greece. They didn't understand lightning, they didn't understand thunder. So they tried to find a reason that those things happen: "Oh, we've angered the gods! I guess we should probably plant more grains." It gave them a sense of control in otherwise uncontrollable situations.

You see a very similar thing with shootings, is they're awful and they're terrible and it's terrifying to think that it could happen to you or your family. And I think it's a double-whammy because it happens in a space where, one, children are involved and that always heightens tension, that always makes things more critically important than they were. And, two, it's supposed to be a safe space.

You know, we're not talking about a group of kids getting shot in a dark alleyway. As awful as that still is, you can write that off as, "Oh, well, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They did it to themselves."

I want to be clear that victim blaming is never right, but it often happens out of a need to find logic, to find safety, in an illogical and scary world.

It's really tough to have that kind of victim-blaming when they're children in a school, in a place that's supposed to be safe. And we tend to victim-blame pretty blatantly in a lot of different things. But those things tend to be said that are horrible and it's awful and we don't actually want to face the reality of what that means, so we find a different way to explain it. So, either her skirt was too short, but, we can't do that in, say, a Columbine-like shooting. We can't say, "Oh, well, those kids were just too Christian. If they had just converted, they would have been fine." Nobody would ever say that in a million years. So you turn to the shooters and put the emphasis on the shooter and you look at what the shooter was doing. Now, Columbine in particular was paired with Doom and I think the Virginia Tech shooting was paired with Call of Duty. The Isla Vista shooting I think was also Call of Duty. But it's also really important to understand that over half the population of the United States plays videogames. Over 90 percent of children play videogames. So the fact that you are finding that this person who shot somebody plays a videogame, it's kind of like saying, "Oh, this person also drank milk."

It's that common of an occurrence, but, again, it's something that's really easy and it makes sense in our brains. Our shortcut of, "Hey, they played a violent game and then they went out and did a violent thing. Hey, those two things go together." Just like the arcade machine is next to the pinball machine: those two things obviously go together. And then we go on with our lives because we don't want to dwell on it. Ultimately the job -- to go back to psychoanalysis -- of our ego, our brain structures, is to make us feel safe. Whether that's physically safe or psychologically safe or emotionally safe, we tend to value things that have that impact, even if it's totally bogus, as long as we think it happened, that's what matters.

You're saying, or at least it sounds to me, like this is a subset of a problem of the only time psych and games interface is just to talk about violence or addiction.

Yeah, John Oliver had a fantastic This Week Tonight on that exact topic, of the only time we talk about mental health is in the scope of a shooting or a violent --

After it happens.

Yeah.

And how that is dangerous because the only time you're talking about mental health is when you're pairing it with something bad. The reinforcement of pairing, kinda like Pavlov's dog, someone gets shot, you think of illness; somebody rings a bell, you salivate. It's the same basic conditioning principles in place.

From the audience for videogames you do see a degree of self-entitlement that does go beyond the norm of what I think is reasonable, which is to have a product that is functioning. Obviously, within the last year there's been an uptick of visibility of misogyny in the space, there's been a number of death threats, bomb threats, rape threats. How does behavior like that around a consumer entertainment product get socialized? I know that's a very broad question.

That is a broad question. But I will try. So, I think one of the first things to keep in mind is that the behaviors that we're seeing, they didn't just become invented with videogames or with the Internet. They have been there for a long time. The Internet and games in particular have just allowed that these smaller pockets of society, I guess, to have a megaphone. There's a quote someplace, I can't recall where, but 25 percent of the population will believe anything. During the Bush years and when all that crap came, his approval rating went down to 25 percent, which is awful, but then you realize 25 percent of Americans still think he's doing a job.

That's a lot of people.

That's a lot of people, and imagine that out of all the people who play videogames, which, again, we've talked about being the half of the population of the United States that regularly plays. So, over 150 million people, there are going to be people in that number who hold beliefs that are radically different than the ones you or I have. I believe that women are people and I can guarantee you there are going to be people who disagree with me on that. But in the past I would not associate with those people, or I would be hard set to find them because the social circles that I run in tend to kind of conform with what I think of as being normal.

But on the Internet, that is on a curve. Those kind of natural boundaries of space or distance or social clique or whatever you want to call it, they don't exist because you can read anything that anybody puts out there and they can read anything that you put out there.

Not only that but they can read anything into whatever you're saying or writing, too.

Yes. As a community moderator on a videogame site, I often have to go to -- there's a YouTube video, and I'll see if I can find it for you. It's instructions on how to read comments, and it has this man with incredible dramatic gravitas and he's reading this really horrible comment. Grammar's terrible, he's basically saying, "You suck," but he's pronouncing all the words as they're spelled instead of how they're supposed to be spelled, and it completely takes away any of the bite or any of the sting of an otherwise really upsetting comment.

But at the same time, you can read a winky face as like, "Aww, winky face!" Or, "What do you want?"

Yeah.

It happened to us. I posted GIF of Sailor Moon blushing and you asked me, "Oh my gosh, I didn't mean to embarrass you!"

[Laughs.] I mean, I was kidding. But I think we had a rapport enough that you understood I was kidding.

But there is that kind of ambiguousness of, "I don't know!?" And we've only talked before, as opposed to a complete vacuum.

But there does seem to be an acceleration of people assuming an amount of information about you online that wasn't really the case a couple decades ago.

I think it has a lot to do with consequences. People tend to push boundaries because we're people and it's what we do, and if we didn't we would have never landed on the moon. Women would have never gotten the right to vote. It's okay to push against what is established. The problem, though, is when there's a lack of consequence.

And there's a fascinating study. It was done on adolescence, so it might not translate to an adult population, but what it found is that adolescents who were prone to cyber-bullying, so, to be cyberbullies, there was this triad. One, they believed they wouldn't get caught or that there were no consequences for their actions. Two, that what they put out there is ephemeral, so it will just disappear eventually. It's not permanent, or the impermanence of the Internet. And three, the normality of aggression online. That is to say, they tended to believe acting aggressively is normal, an acceptable way to interact online.

But, it's not impermanent.

But that's the thing. This is their belief.

But this stuff is likely to outlive us. It'll be totally buried --

So what they found out is when you took away one of the three prongs -- so, either the person learned about the permanence of what's on the Internet, they had a consequence/got caught, or somehow came to realize that, no, telling someone to go kill themselves is not acceptable. Not even on the internet. Those are the three. Then, the cyber-bullying plummeted. And all you gotta do is remove one of them.

So, for me, the easiest thing to address is consequences because you can do things like threaten somebody's life and there's no consequence. You can SWAT somebody, which is if somebody's live-streaming on a platform like Twitch, where you can see them and they're playing a videogame and you're watching them play the videogame, swatting is when you call in the SWAT team, you call in the local police office, and give them the address of the person who's streaming and tell them that there's something really terrible going on and they'll come in and bust down the door responding to the call. And then you actually get to watch on stream, this person gets tackled by the SWAT team. So you can do that and there's no consequence.

Even on a much smaller scale, I stream with my eSports site pretty regularly and we had a guy who was coming in and DDoSing our site so that way the stream would crash. Basically, he was flooding the Internet tubes and clogging them up so we could no longer stream. And there was nothing we could do. We got some more security and he eventually went away because he could no longer break into our system, but there's consequence for him. And he's actually well-known in Halo circles for doing this. But nobody can touch him. There's no consequence. So, that's an enormous amount of power that somebody can have that is completely unchecked. And people respond to consequences. That's what tends to shape our behavior. You know, if you touch the stove when it's hot, you're not gonna touch it again. You get a lollipop for going to the doctor, the idea is that maybe you'll hate the doctor less. It didn't work for me.

Once again, there's this idea of pairing one thing with the other to shape the behavior that you see. So I think that a lot of it is -- there's that really famous cartoon: "Internet + audience + anonymity = asshat." It's the dickwad theory of the Internet. But as more and more people are using their real names, the idea that it's anonymous is no longer true. Like, I don't think it's anonymity. It's the lack of consequence, which anonymity is a part of because if nobody knows who you are there cannot be consequences.

Right. That's the umbrella that it's under.

The person who attacked Zoe Quinn is well-known but nothing happened to him. Same with the person who threatened Anita Sarkeesian and she had to cancel her presentation, I think, in Utah.

It was at Utah. I taught at that school last year.

Yeah. Nothing happened to him, at least that I'm aware of. I guess that's another point where maybe journalism really comes into this is that the threat gets covered extensively, but what happens after, if something happens after does not. Did anything happen to that person? I actually don't know.

I don't know either. But my bet would be no because I would have thought I would've heard of it or you would have heard of it, but that doesn't mean nothing happened.

That's the fun part: If you don't know about it, did it happen?

It might have?

[Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Well, wait, so to back up for second, though: Who is this person who was DDoSing your games? Why were they doing it? What's the m.o. for this sort of behavior, and why is it that there are no consequences, just an opportunity for someone to build a reputation?"

I don’t know who he is. He isn’t a member of my community, he never plays in the games. He randomly showed up one day and started spewing vile in my Twitch chat. I gave him a "time out" where he couldn’t chat for a certain amount of time. When the time out ended, he came back and threatened, “You don’t want to ban me. You won’t like what happens.” He continued saying horrible things so I banned him. Sure enough, he logged on with another account -- using a VPN I imagine -- and took down my Internet. He kept coming back night after night, taking down the stream, and until finally we figured out the vulnerability he was exploiting.

I firmly believe for him it was all about power. About trying to strike fear into others so they would obey him. As my parents, my previous bosses, and anyone else will tell you, I’m not much into the idea of obedience. Fight the man! I did track him down via Twitter -- not specifically proud of this -- and found a list of @ taunts he’d sent when taking down other streamers. I sleuthed he was from a Scandinavian country -- again, not proud. I reported him to Twitch, screencapped his taunts and sent them to Twitter, but that was all I could do. Twitch banned the guy’s account and his alternates as we found them, but couldn’t help beyond that -- thanks for trying though! -- and Twitter wouldn’t help me. What more can you do?

Did you feel threatened or like your life was in danger?

I've never felt like my life was in danger, and it feels really awful to have to qualify "threat" as including that. I was in a lobby, by myself, waiting to play some Halo and somebody I don't know popped in and said my gamertag and, "I hope you fucking die you cunt slut." Or something like that. The main gist was, "I hope you fucking die."

On Twitter he was bragging about how he went into my lobby and told me to fucking die and he added in some expletives that he didn't actually say to me, but said that he said them. So, for me, I put on my psychologist hat and go, "Okay. Somebody's seeking approval." So I don't internalize it. I don't take it personally, in that case. So I didn't feel like my life was in danger, but, yeah, that kind of harassment, I've presented on panels where I've actually played the audio of people, of what they said.

There used to be this site, I don't think they update anymore, but Fat, Ugly or Slutty, which is a fantastic site where women -- and I guess men, too -- but you can send in the harassing messages, and they were kind of all catalogues as a very blatant example for us to not feel silent. Like, there's a place to share the harassment.

And so once you see that you're not the only person who's experience this, it actually almost became funny reading some of these horrible messages because the community that kind of formed around it, we were supportive, and so we were able to see it as the kind of bull it actually is as opposed to, "Oh, they're singling me out, I'm the only person who's going through this."

Now, obviously, that's a really different scale than what happened in 2014 and obviously having to fear for your life and having to not stay in your own house, that's so far above and beyond anything that could ever possibly be justified. So, it's -- I'm lucky. I count myself lucky that that has not happened to me. But I also am very aware that given my status as a professional in the mental-health sphere, my information is out there because as a mental-health person your information has to be out there. So, I know if someone wanted to "doxx" or put all my information on the Internet, it would not be difficult. So, there's always that kind of fear when I stream -- that twinge of, "You know, someone could just come bursting through my door right now and arrest me for no reason."

But, again, I hate to say I've been lucky, because I would like to think that's a basic human decency thing.

Yeah.

But, no, I've gotten my fair share of harassment. It's like the initiation. I'm hazed. I'm into the club. But I really wish that other people didn't have to go through that, and I know so many people who don't play the games that I play, women who don't play the games that I play because they don't want to deal with this stuff that I deal with.

I don't really want to get too much into South By Southwest, but was that on your radar that they canceled some --

It was! It was! Because I had a panel through JoLT, we had a panel submitted there. So I was also watching.

I kinda figured you were. But then, they just re-instated them.

Yes. And I am not an expert in this area, so this is not academically informed, but from what I understand, they put the people who harass and the people who have been harassed under the same roof.

Yes.

The belief that both sides "need to be represented."

And I kinda feel like that's putting the abuser and the survivor of domestic violence under the same roof so you can get both sides of their story.

Which, I would hope we would see as absolutely ludicrous and dangerous and unhealthy. So that's kinda my thought on that. Our panel was not accepted, so that takes away the dilemma of, "Do I want to continue to go South by Southwest and support an organization that is behaving the way that they are? So that takes that off my plate." [Laughs.]

Yeah.

But I really feel for -- I don't know. It's tough, because if there were a genuine argument, if there were actually something there, then you would want both sides. But somebody has to decide what is legitimate and what is not.

And I am not in that position, so I can be completely open and honest about my feelings towards it and it being a complete BS waste of time, again, tantamount to putting the victim with their abuser.

Yeah.

But I do also understand the journalistic slant of wanting to represent both sides. If there are lots of things in history that if you had not pushed for and may have seemed radical at the time, but if had not been pushed for, would not have happened. I mean, women's right to vote? That caused a lot of ruckus and a lot of people didn't believe in it, but really glad that they kept pushing through it. So, I don't want to say that the death eaters are tantamount to women's suffrage because they're definitely, like, the anti-womanist suffrage.

Yeah.

But it's more I'm trying to be empathic to the people at South by Southwest who had to make that call, even though I adamantly disagree with it.

You said that your field has skepticism about games in general?

Oh yeah. Well, back when I was little Kelli, before I was Dr. Kelli --

[Laughs.] You were just regular-sized Kelli.

I was regular-sized Kelli. I really wanted to study mental health in games. I remember, even before doctor school, when I was an undergrad at American University, I really wanted to study games and mental health because all the research at the time was about how videogames made you aggressive and I didn't believe it because I started playing Halo in college, and met my husband, on my floor, in my dorm, through playing Halo in college -- some of the best friends I have today are who I met either in person or online playing Halo. I remember our epic LAN parties when we would play for, like, eight hours overnight, get breakfast, go to our 9 a.m. class, come back and then go to sleep, and then get up and do it all over again. And I have such positive experiences playing games -- violent games, M-rated games, that I just couldn't believe the research I was reading.

And I thought it was kinda sketchy the way they did things, so I ran my own experiments. It was very, very small. It was my first one ever, so it didn't go anywhere. I'd probably be horrified to even look at it now. But basically what I found was it was frustration tolerance, not the rating of the game or the violence that lead to frustration and more aggressive feelings. Which, subsequently, a paper came out two years ago that said that, so I felt vindicated.

So, I didn't get a lot of support from my department. Nobody really wanted to touch what I was doing. I kinda had a chair who begrudgingly just kinda signed off on it. I don't think he even read it. And then I went to doctor school and there wasn't anybody -- I will say that none of my professors were against me studying this, but a lot of it was, "Well, I don't know. That's beyond my scope of competency, so meh." My chair ended up being the only person on the faculty who actually did play games on my project and so I was very lucky in that. And then, so there wasn't resistance, but there was more of an ambivalence.

And then when I started practicing, going on my practicum and on my internship -- most of it was in ambivalence, but there definitely was pushback from some individuals where it was like, "No, you can't do that. You can't -- what do you mean you talked about videogames in therapy? You can't do that." Well, that's what the kid wanted to talk about and I got a lot out of it and he got a lot out of it. I actually ended up doing a lot of that stuff on the fly or using code words. "Talked about videogame use," that was something I could get away with. I could talk about videogames if it was in the context of it being bad or trying to correct videogame behavior, which I never really did.

It was more about using them as a tool in therapy to either, one, establish rapport, two, to get the person to talk and share about their experiences in the game. Their reward behavior, like, "Okay, you sit here with me for 10 minutes and we do hard work, then we'll go talk about games, and then we'll go play games."

And that worked really well.

So, my personal experience wasn't too bad. I did have one supervisor when I was at the VA who was incredibly supportive and she helped me put together a module that was -- I want to say it was about 15 weeks where I took game design ideas such as leveling and points and challenge and feedback, and made that into an actual group therapy course on resilience.

And so she was very, very helpful in that. So, most of the kickback comes from the research. So, when you read research on mental health and videogames. It's dominated by violence and addiction. It has almost always been dominated by violence and addiction.

And professionals in the field read what they read, and they tend to read stuff that's published in important places like the APA. And I can't really doubt them for that because, once again, they don't have time to read everything, so you gotta go to one or two sources. But unfortunately, most of the research is just not done well or it brings in assumptions about games that leads to conclusions that are biased. It's a difficult place to be in because some people are so adamant about it.

And actually there was a study that came out last month by Ferguson that showed almost a very distinct correlation between the age of a psychologist and their thoughts and feelings about videogames. So, the older the psychologist, the more they disliked or were distrustful of videogames.

And although I feel like that might be unfair to psychologists -- because I feel like that was probably expand to most human beings over time. You know, when you get older, "What is this newfangled thing that we've got?"

Yeah. "Kids these days."

Yeah. "Kids these days" has been a thing since Plato, so you can't get too mad at it. But what I think is the most difficult thing is that these journals are now open to everybody which is great.

Don't get me wrong. I love the idea of academic research being open to everyone. The problem is that research is still being written in academic terms that not everybody can understand.

And so most people, or a lot of people, if they do enjoy looking at an academic journal or two, like myself, or a journalist, they tend to go to the discussion section or the conclusion section, which kind of summarizes everything, or the abstract. And those are places where authors tend to put their spin or their interpretation of the data as opposed to digging into the stats and the data itself and seeing what the information actually says.

So, I think that's definitely a huge challenge and why you see the professional attitude to the max.

You had mentioned it's great that this research is being done and it's out there, but you had said in our emails that there's almost nothing scholarly examining the portrayal or representation of mental illness in videogames, even though there's a long history of similar analysis in other mediums.

Oh yeah.

You said this is a conversation you've never heard explored and would love to dig deep on. So, what comes to mind first?

[Sighs.] Jeez. So, looking at similar mediums -- so, film, television -- there's lots of research on how mental illness is portrayed in those mediums. Now, those are older mediums, especially film, so the chance is there for more research. I understand that. But videogames are almost 40 years now, so let's get on that.

But, for example, I did some research recently trying to understand the way that mental illness is portrayed, looking for something that's representing as this mental illness. Because those stats exist for gender and those stats exist for race. A big gulf exists for mental illness. I could not find anything. I found one paper that examined the portrayal of mental illness, but it was specifically within Batman: Arkham Asylum, which might not be the most kind place to start. But that's a perfect example of in how many games are you in an insane asylum as a setting? How many games use criminal insanity as the motivation of the antagonist?

Insert

Vaas, from Far Cry 3, is a really solid example. He has no motivation other than he's crazy. And that can be said for a lot of villains. What about Kefka in Final Fantasy? Just, "Oh, he's crazy!" You know? And that's the whole motivation for that character, which means that's the motivation for you as the hero character, the protagonist, to go destroy him: "Oh, well, he's crazy, so we have to stop him." So, that's an interesting thing to see in games, but what bothers me is there's no real research or examination of that. And so it's hard to say things like, "Oh, mental illness is portrayed really shittily in games." Or, "Mental illness tropes are prevalent in X, Y, and Z."

Well, I think what you're saying is what we're seeing in a lot of different areas, which is there hasn't really been a consequence for the types of representations that we've been seeing, and we're starting to see some consequences in terms of people pointing it out and calling it out, and then those consequences having consequences.
But, I mean, you said that all the games about mental health suck. Is this what you were talking about? Or how did you mean that?

In two separate ways. So, one, mental illness in games is different than the other kind of "minority" representations because it's there. Mental illness is throughout tons of games. I think in my research paper, I cited 39 games off the top of my head that had a character portraying some kind of mental illness or symptoms of a mental illness.

The difficulty with mental illness is it's there. The representation is there, unlike women, for example. I don't think I could name 39 games that have a female protagonist. But there's really no analysis on what that representation portrays. So, for mental illness in games, it's more about -- it's there, but how is it portrayed? And that's lacking in the research.

And then there's this idea of -- so, you have games that have characters with mental-health issues in them. Then there are games about mental health, and that is even divided into sub-sections. So there are games that are the experience of mental health, and then there are games about treating mental health. So, the games about experiencing mental health, Depression Quest is probably the most famous. There's also games like Elude, Actual Sunlight, Neverending Nightmares.

Insert

These are games that are a simulation of an individual person's experience of battling depression or OCD or anxiety. And those -- those are okay. So, for example, Neverending Nightmares is a fantastic game. It's a wonderful game. The creator copes with pretty severe depression and OCD. And OCD as in the actual OCD. Not the Monk, pop filter of OCD. The OCD where you have visualizations about pulling veins out of your arm kind of OCD. And he made a game that was basically a manifestation of his obsessions, his compulsions, and his depression.

And so when you play that game, you feel things like fear and helplessness and disturbed and these feelings associated that he probably experienced as well. So, I think that's a great game. Depression Quest got a lot of good buzz. I enjoyed it as a game-design exercise and how -- if you've never played Depression Quest, it's a text-based game in Twine where there's kind of like a story. It's kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure story.

And so you read through a bunch of text and then you have to make a decision, but some of the decisions are removed because you are depressed. So, if your decision is, you know, "Something bad happened. Do you take solace by taking your dog for a walk, sit down and watch depressing TV, or crawl into bed?" The "take solace and take your dog for a walk" is scratched out, because that's mimicking what it's like to have depression in that the good option either isn't available or you feel like it isn't available.

So, the game itself, I thought there was a lot of text. It is what it is. But I think it was interesting from the mechanical standpoint of this is how a mechanic portrays mental illness. So, I thought that was cool.

Insert

And Elude, there really is no win state, but basically you're jumping through trees, and if you fall hard enough, you fall into this pit that you can't get out of and you die. Which is really kind of dark. Maybe a little fatalistic for depression, but the idea that, "This is what it's like to keep going up, going up, and then all of a sudden you crash and when you crash you just go down into something you cannot get out of." So, again they're expressing different feelings for what it is like to have depression. And, again, they do them to some good or -- not bad -- meh to good.

The other side is when psychologists -- so that's game designers making games about psychology. Then you get psychologists making games about psychology and you can tell because they're not fun. They suck.

[Laughs.]

I'm sorry. They suck. They're not good. They're not fun. Not that a game has to be -- they're not engaging. That's the word I'm looking for. It's like, "Hey! Let's sit down and learn all the parts of the brain! Yay! That sounds like a fun game." Or -- some are trying. I'll put that out there. There's one called Sparx that is kind of like World of Warcraft meets Sims but for teen anxiety and depression.

So, I haven't had a chance to play it personally, but I've gotten to do some reading about it and it's become like a social simulation in that way. So, you're supposed to -- there's seven levels that correspond to the seven steps of CBT. And so as you go through each level, you're learning the different cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to advance to the next level. The idea is you play the game and you are learning the techniques along the way in order to complete the game.

So, certainly games are fun or they can be engaging and I think people probably think about the intersection of your different disciplines and people are maybe are familiar with play therapy and how videogames might fit in with that, but for people who don't see the value of videogames, in your estimation how do they help people?

Oh gosh. That's a whole other interview.

[Laughs.]

I guess the Reader's Digest version --

Yeah.

I mean, clinically, I'll start there, because that's just my smallest sample size -- clinically games are an instant-rapport button. There is nothing easier than sitting down with a child who's wearing a Minecraft shirt and being able to talk about Minecraft with them. There was a child I worked with who -- we took out watercolors and we painted a Minecraft character and then, so I talked about I had a sword that kept sad feelings away and I had a shield that gave me extra strength when I'm feeling sad.

Whereas the kid, he had fleet feet, so he could run away faster.

And he had a cloak so he could turn invisible. And he had special gloves that helped him climb a tree to get away from bad things.

And after we start talking about, "What are you walking away from? Wow, your character looks scared, I wonder what's going on."

And so it's just an instant -- you're speaking a common language with that person. That's great. Clinically, that was a huge utility of it. An example of it in play therapy.

Another thing about games is they allow people to have a shared experience that really kind of goes beyond other experiences. So, we all watched Ninja Turtles, we all know Michelangelo, Raphael, all of them. Leonardo and Donatello. Don't want to leave 'em out. But there's something about when you sit down to play Skyrim and then you can talk with another person about Skyrim and you had totally different experiences but you still live in the same world. So, I'm a huge two-handed heavy-armor Breton and when I go into a dungeon I just smash everything. Whereas my husband, he likes to play as a thief and so it takes him five times as long to go through a dungeon, but he still exists in the same world and he doesn't kill anything. He just gets what he needs and leaves.

There's a social network inherent in them, even in games like Skyrim or Fallout, which is particularly relevant because of Fallout 4. So, it's -- and again, games themselves are passion. You get to decide what happens. It's not -- it can be prescriptive. You totally can. It's your decision. And I think for a lot of people that's empowering because they have control and they get to make decisions.

Another way that games could be helpful is that they can be a place to just get it out, to relax, to have fun. Games are becoming a socially acceptable play space for adults. And that is critically important because adults aren't allowed to play. Again, going back to the idea that play is frivolous or for children or is childish.

Right. Right.

We already have some prescriptive play spaces. For example, it's totally okay for a guy to write "Green Bay" on his naked chest. That is a form of play. And it's a form of socially acceptable adult play. Like, that's okay. That's normal. That's encouraged. If you don't do it, you might actually be weird.

[Laughs.] Right.

And play allows us to relax, to explore, to learn, to practice. So I think that's really important in games as well, and videogames allow that to happen.

We started off talking about the intersection of game design and journalism. What do you notice about the types of stories that games media will run versus stories they will never run?

Huh.

Just patterns, trends, that kind of thing.

Are we talking about journalistic coverage or game reviews?

Any, all. I'm talking about if you pay attention to coverage, what patterns of writing or omissions of writing do you notice?

I feel like there's a lot of extremes, which, again is reflecting back on the all-black or all-white scenario. There's a new game coming out whose name escapes me at this point that already has a lot of buzz about being the most realistic simulation of a mental health issue.

And it's already getting this buzz and it's only alpha and it's being kind of heralded as a new, amazing thing. And, again, that's an example of an extreme. Or -- I don't know. Let me chew on this for a bit. I guess I can look at it from a mainstream news kind of aspect. I feel like it definitely gets some negative press. Or the pattern of it is to say what bad thing are videogames doing now.

Then again, I feel like that is just the press in general, so, sorry.

This is true.

Sorry all you journalist people. I'm a little bit disenfranchised; you told me that bacon now causes cancer, so, I'm still kind of upset about that.

But the idea that if it bleeds it leads is still something that I feel is true in journalism circles. And that's probably maybe even getting more extreme as news sites are trying to get clicks, trying to get more attention, and they're really having to fight against more clickbait, sweet, sugary stuff. So they're trying to get more and more interesting content, which I can't blame them for but putting something out there that is maybe exaggerated or you're choosing a word that might not really represent what's going on.

What do you think videogames have accomplished?

In the past 40 years?

Yeah.

A lot. Videogames started out as something only the super-smart and privileged could have.

You know, you have to have access to a super-computer and the programming knowledge to make a game. So, I think going from that where only a couple of people in the world had the access and the knowledge to make a videogame to where we are now in 2015 where anybody can make a game, I feel like that's probably the biggest accomplishment in the games space. Not just the indie scene, the independent games scene, but how the software and the technology has advanced to the point to being open to everyone. I mentioned Twine earlier. It's a game platform with really minimal scripting so that you can make kind of Choose Your Own Adventure-style games and it's text-based and it's really super-easy and you don't really need any kind of coding or knowledge to do it. There's tons of visual coding systems, Construct 2 or GameSalad, you drag and drop pretty much what you want and they have a fantastic tutorial set to help you get started.

So, I think that is really, really important to the future of games because over the last 40 years there's really only been one or two narratives told. And it makes sense because you want to tell the narrative or you want to have the game that sells because you're an industry and you're trying to make money and you need to appeal to the kind of lowest common denominator so that something will sell. And taking risks, especially as the game industry got bigger and companies have gotten larger and the price of a videogame, the production price has skyrocketed -- you can't really take risks because your investors won't like it or your bosses won't like it, and that's why I think the independent scene is so important to the future of games because that way you are getting unique stories. You're getting unique perspectives. You are getting things like Depression Quest and Elude and Town of Light and Actual Sunlight and Fez and all of these different ways of playing with game mechanics and game story and visuals and narrative and I feel like it's almost like a Renaissance of videogames where you've got your main standard, but then you've also got this really interesting subculture that is open to all, that tends to be very supportive of one another. And the ability to create something to be able to share your own experience is kind of a psychologist's dream come true. So, I think that -- yeah. That is the most important thing to me that games have done.

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