Sunday, 21 February 2010

Life issues

Buck is, of course, not the only psychologist to explore life issues and what they mean to us. I'd like to take a look at some other psychological ideas, based on the concept that people have to find answers to their issues in life, building their own identity and strategies to handle the world in the process.

A very strong proponent in people's lives is to find answers, to be able to predict and understand their life - Even more so than having a pleasant life. A life you cannot understand is a very frightening thing indeed... Furthermore, we need our assumptions and models to get us through everyday life, not to be completely overloaded by every decision.

Let's have a look at Erikson's stages first:

Erikson's stages of psychosocial development (link)
Erik H. Erikson lists a series of life stages, each in which a growing person has to find an answer to an issue in life: Can I trust? Can I act? Can I love? What is trust to me? What is my relationship to my industriousness? In what way will I convey my love?

Here are some examples of Erikson's stages:
Trust vs Mistrust (0-1 years old) Will my parents take care of me when I need it? Are people basically good and trustworthy or unpredictable?
Initiative vs Guilt (4-6 years old) Suddenly I'm old enough to do things with a purpose. Does my actions give me pride or guilt?
Identity vs Role confusion (13-19 years old) Who Am I? This is the big one, the crux of development, where the previous stages are evaluated and an personal identity is formed.
Intimacy vs Isolation (20-34 years old) How will I handle intimacy, friends, loved ones? What does friendship and love mean to me?
Ego integrity vs Despair (65 years old and onwards) Can I make sense of the life I've lived? Looking back at it all, does it make me wise and fulfilled, or bitter and regretful?
As we grow a little older and and a little wiser, the outcome of these stages provides answers to what life is and how we handle it. We learn life as we live it, as we grow up, so to speak.

Freudian psychodynamics

A paragon for Eriksons model is present already in Freudian psychodynamics; The oral, anal, phallic and genital phases, where the child encounters and must try to master gratification and separation, control, etc.

Attachment theory
Attachment theory is based on the idea that we adapt to how our parents treat us. During our first years, we learn models for how the world and the people around us works, and how we should handle this. Is the world a safe place? Is it a loving place? Can I trust? (Eriksons first psychosocial stage)

A child which believes it is loved and safe will grow up with a sense of security, and dares to explore the world, to open up to it - Another child might keep itself closed up not to get hurt, a third child might have strong ambivalent feelings to the world, reaching out, desperate for love but at the same time rejecting other people, fearing to be rejected itself. These models follow us through our life, shaping our view of the world.


Existentialism stresses how we must find our own answers about ourselves and the world in this modern time - The priests, kings and traditions doesn't give us the holy, unquestionable answers anymore. Existentialism stresses the questions which are common to all humanity, though: Life and death, love, identity... They are a part of our existence, and so everyone must face them at some point.

I have previously mentioned how humanistic psychotherapy, inspired by existentialism, uses the client's own words rather than theoretical psychological terms. Every client must decide hirself what hir questions are, what life issues are important, unresolved, and how to understand them. These subjects are called themes. I guess you could define them as "stuff the client feels like talking about again and again" ;-)

Cognitive-behaviour therapy
In cognitive behaviour therapy, an emphasis is placed on (not necessarily conscious) assumptions of the world, answers to how the world works, and from these we form behaviours to handle the world. I believe that when people see me for who I am, they will reject me, and thus I act out whenever we start talking about me, anything to change the subject... for instance.

So the answers to our life issues, or life questions, become models for how to live our lives, which we enact every day.


Oh hey, my mother just called. We talked about how hard it is to change the answers you find out in childhood, the models your parents give you. It can be done though, by re-learning from persons that become close to you, or through therapy.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

I'm introducing: Lucien A Buck

While doing research for a paper on normality and self-realisation, me and my partner stumbled across the research of psychology professor Lucien A Buck, a paper titled "Normality, abnormality and health". In this paper he makes several references to patients with autism and patients with schizophrenia, the people farthest away from our normality and community.

But Buck argues that instead of placing a diagnosis on the abnormal and move them towards normality, we should see the individual strengths and weaknesses that exists in every person... Screw it, I'm just going to quote his abstract:

Most forms of psychotherapy are limited by assumptions about abnormality that focus on pathology while ignoring the potential for growth that exists in all. Effective psychotherapy requires respect for human complexity. Each person needs to be perceived as embodying a unique balance of strengths and weaknesses: The potential of normal people cannot be properly evaluated if their limitations are ignored, nor can individuals diagnosed as abnormal be understood by relying upon a pathology perspective. "Normalization" - psychotherapeutic practices aimed toward producing normal behaviour - can deprive people of existing strengths.
What he is saying is basically, instead of seeing people as mentally ill (With different diagnosises as the subcategories) or normal, we should see all people striving with the same human basic goals (which constitute the terms of human existence and what it means to be human) Almost no one person is entirely sick or entirely healthy. I'll quote Buck again:
"It is possible to conceptualize abnormality, normality and health as segments along a continuum of increasing capacity for managing the essential issues of living: autonomy, identity, work, creativity, propagation, aging and death."

As you can see, Buck separates normality and health: He argues that normality means letting everyone else decide on your life issues for you, resolving these issues based on conformity. Normality is an efficient way to live, but it also brings "normal problems", such as stress and age crisis.

Abnormality in life issues means you haven't given up and let society define your issues, but it isn't in your own power to define yourself either. The life issue is ruled by chaos instead of control, it is ruled by the fear of losing control of it rather than the security to evolve it and let it develop. The abnormal position is fortified one, and it means the person aggressively defends against other people's expectations and conformity which threatens to take hir over.

Health is also a sort of deviance from normality, but a balanced one. You have managed to reach your own conclusions on these life issues, and the healthy issue is characterized by originality, creativity and genuineness.

Let's draw a model to illustrate. I've chosen four issues and made a slice of someone's life. Let's call him Tim.

So instead of saying "Tim is a schizophrenic", we assess that Tim has great problems with identity, keeping a stable sense of himself and what he is, as he fears he might be desintegrated any moment. Love is really difficult as well, with no point of ego to fix it to. Tim has a great health in creativity, though. Work is alright.

So instead of trying to make Tim normal and potentially crush his creativity and alienating him from himself in the process, we should take care of his abnormal issues and encourage his healthy ones.

Let us now combine this with humanist psychology founding father Abraham Maslow's idea of the healthy, self-realising person.

According to Maslow, this person is genuine, original, brave/secure and has a healthy bit of perspective on normality. Maslow describes the healthy person as someone who "can wear normality as a coat", so to speak, put it on or put it away as sie likes. When the situation calls for it, sie can put on a tie and a suit, and respect norms and courtesies to smooth out human interactions, even if sie considers these rituals rather pointless...

For you see, the healthy person can do this without endangering hir own sense of identity and security - It takes great deal of security and confidence in your life issues to be able to venture out of the safe zone, explore the issue without fear and needing to defend your standpoint.

What really strikes me about Buck's model is that he interprets normality as being stiff, abnormality as being completely stuck, and health as a creative, playful stance. Remember what I said about impro?

I love this dude. Check out his tribute:

Next up: Life issues, sense of security and playfulness. After that, we'll take a look at life issues in roleplaying games. (flags)

Friday, 12 February 2010

Crazy week

Boy howdy. I just started my practical training, so this week I've been out in reality doing work from 8 to 5 (8 to 5 in theory at least) which has been exhausting. I've decided not to write anything if it feels forced to do so, so... I haven't really written anything. Perhaps this weekend I'll return with an analysis of Lucien A Buck and life issues, I really want to dive into this issue. Lots of relevance to roleplaying game theory and the impro mindset as well.

For now, you can have a look at a real nice theatresports scene of "One word at a time", get a feel for what I'm talking about.

I particullary like the second scene, on broom sweeping.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Thoughts so far

I like it. This has becoma real constructive process for me, a kind of parallell to my psychotherapy. You could say that aside from psychology, impro and roleplaying, I, myself, am the fourth pillar of this blog's content. In the end it is about my thoughts and how I relate to these topics, and I will put emphasis on things I feel relate to my own life and my life issues.

Even though I've made a list of things I want to bring up on this blog and started planning ahead, I felt that this "just let it grow"-attitude has worked real well - Even summarising an established field of science (psychology) stimulated me with new ideas during the writing process. I didn't really expect this blog to be so humanistic-philosophical, so that's interesting.

I felt a bit of a speed bump when writing up the roleplaying summary. I think it's because there is a lot baggage there: I've been a part of the roleplaying community for very long, I've discussed and debated roleplaying theory so much, I've explained the hobby so many times. I suppose what this is about is that I just don't want this blog to turn into another roleplaying blog with psychology and impro on the side, but to stay truly multi-discipline.

The lack of comments have been really sobering, and reminded me that I'm primarily writing this for myself - I don't want to either get caught up in other people's expectations or feel I'm ignoring other people's input because I'm doing my thing.

Oh, and to me, learning is building. I'm always processing things as I go, and I often go back and edit and re-edit a post even after I've published it.


Right, so I mentioned life issues in the first paragraph, and that is something I'm really interested to explore right now. Next up will be a little psychology background.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

I'm introducing: Roleplaying games

Roleplaying is a collaborative hobby where four, five-something friends meet up regularly and play a roleplaying game for an evening, doing a one-night thing or picking up where they left their story the last time. It is a wholly verbal hobby, a kind of storytelling.

So what is these games all about? Well, there is a huge span of just what roleplaying games can be in terms of setting, theme and structure, but there are three components that are common to all roleplaying games:

1) It's a game
2) It's a platform for acting and immersing in a made up world
3) It's a collaborative storytelling

These three components have always been there, and players can switch between playing, acting and storytelling as they wish, and different players are attracted to different aspects of the hobby. I'm going to use these three components to sum up the history of roleplaying games, the simplified version:

Roleplaying started with the game Dungeons and Dragons in the late 70s, which was kind of an offshoot of a wargame - But instead of two players pitting miniature armies against each other on a battlefield table, a bunch of players teamed up, each controling a single miniature, trying together to overcome the obstacles that a referee set up for you. (That is, kill his monster miniatures)

At some point, someone realised that, hey, you could do whatever you wish to with these characters. The focus was moved from playing with miniatures trying to win a challenge, to playing a character placed in the context of a made up world. You figured out a personality and history for your character, and decided how sie should realistically act in a given situation, and then acted that out verbally. Instead of dungeons full of monsters, the settings became made-up worlds; historical, fantasy, future, or mirroring our present day.

The referee became a storyteller that prepared a story for the players to explore with their characters, and characters of hir own for the players to interact with. 

Instead of the win/lose rules of a game, the rules would either be very complex to simulate the laws of nature, or very simple and non-intrusive to leave room for immersion in the world. The main purpose of these rules where to realistically determine whether a given characters action would succed or fail, adding together the character's skill and an element of chance. (Roll a dice and add your skill number. Good enough? You succeed)

This is the playstyle that would dominate roleplaying games from the 80s to the 00s, and for a long time this game-immersion-story divsion was not seen as important, but rather if you prefered for "rules light" or "rules heavy" games.

In the 00s there was a movement towards analysis of roleplaying and player dynamics, which resulted in a new design philosophy emerged where story took the front seat, the indie roleplaying games.
The story of the immersion playstyle of the 80s and 90s was often rather static, with the referee (or gamemaster) having planned the story out in advance and the rules in many ways actually serving the purpose of stopping the players from messing it up too much. (Oh, you wan't to seduce him? You'll have to roll a Seduction test, then! - Which is a textbook case of blocking in impro theatre)

The indie movement made the story about the characters rather than have them explore it, placed a great emphasis on story elements such as theme and premise, made storytelling more improvised and collaborative - Often the referee is done away with completely, and all players participate as equals.

The rules became guidelines for a particular style of drama rather than realistic success/failure laws of nature - You bought a game to tell this particular kind of story (that could be exported to different settings) rather than to explore a particular setting (in which you could play any kind of story)

In Scandinavia, there has also been a parallell development towards story called freeform or jeepform, pre-written scenarios built on a different structure than rules.

Summing up
I'd like to once more point out that all of these three components have always been present in some form in basically all roleplaying, even though the focus of them have shifted over time. For instance Dungeons and Dragons, which reached edition four last year, which has been a step back towards pure game, but more inspired and less clunky... Me and four friends play it regularly, but in addition to the game elements, we do lots and lots of immersion and storytelling in our playstyle.

It is probably pretty obvious to everyone at this point what my preferred kind of game is, and what I consider to be the humanist sort of game: The story games. Story games are more improvised, there's less authority and more focus on communication between players - There is simply a much greater interest in human, personal issues and themes, and a much greater trust in the other players creativity, providing tools for them to use rather than subjecting them to a fixed world.

On a side note, it is a little interesting that the third force in both psychology and roleplaying games would be the humanistic one. In the end, the humanistic therapy sort of altered psychotherapy as a whole, merging with other kinds of therapy rather than becoming a separate tradition, and I can see hints of the same thing happening with roleplaying games and the indie wave.

In a way, I think the indie games personal involvement of players and their characters is a vital part of what a story really is. A story is in the end about humans and humanity, a story must be meaningful and thus relate to the participants personally, because meaning is personal.

(I'll explore this in a future post)

When I bring up roleplaying on this blog, I will probably often be critical and harsh on general roleplaying design... But that's okay - I've grown up with this hobby, written for it, played it. I love it, and it's really for your own good, darnit!

Seriously though, roleplaying just doesn't have the history and research of psychology and theatre. Most roleplaying designers have "real jobs" on the side, writing games out of inspiration and love rather than to make a living, and the analysis and theory building of roleplaying games is a rather new one. There aren't any Rogers or Johnstones in roleplaying, though there are a whole bunch of very inspiring and bright people analysing and working with their hobby, so we all have a chance to critically examine and participate in forming the theory body of roleplaying games, which I'm doing here.

I suppose you could say that I'm very much exploring impro and psychology, relating it to my own life, while I already have the relation to and knowledge of roleplaying. What I'm exploring in roleplaying is rather how the hobby links with psychology and impro, and just what this means.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


I have realized that in many ways I am a flaming humanist and existentialist, and this is perhaps the very reason I have decided to bring together the seemingly disparate domains of psychology, impro and role-playing in this blog. It is high time to examine this link, I believe.

Humanism is a rather vague concept, but to put it rather simply: To me it means a trust in other humans, their kindness and their capability, both individually and collectively. A sense of respect of, and inspiration from what other people find meaningful or important in life.

Humanistic psychotherapy
I described humanistic psychotherapy (or client-centered therapy) very briefly in my introduction to psychology, now let's take a closer look. I will stay out of the techniques and and theory framework of the humanistic psychotherapy, and just detail the therapist-client relationship.

Genuineness, acceptance and empathy has been labelled "the Rogerian triad" (Carl Rogers) and is the core of how to a therapist should conduct hirself in client-centered therapy.

The therapist should trust the positive force of change within the client and just, well listen, basically. The therapist should create a warm and accepting atmosphere with the client, in which the client will allow hirself to explore hir thoughts and worries fully and with hir own words, without any fear of failing or "doing it wrong".

With careful prompting the therapist can encourage this, deepen the clients processing, encouraging hir to think more deeply and with more perspective on hir issues, reaching an understanding of hirself.
There is also an emphasis on picking up on the clients wording and thought structure: To understand the client through hir own understanding of the world and hirself, rather than through a cognitive or psychodynamic terminology - What is meaningful to this person?

My material on therapy exercises (A translation, I don't know the original source actually!) also mentions seven common worries the therapist should forget about, and instead focus on the patient in the here and now.

Rogers' research is the reason psychologists of today goes "mm-hm" and "I understand you felt angry at that point" all the time ;-)

Impro theatre
Now let's take these principles and compare them to the five guidelines of impro theatre I outlined in the last post. Take a minute to think this over, try to see the same connections that I see.

Don't worry, listen = Be spontaneous (1)
Empathy = Always make your partner look good (2)
Acceptance = Always say yes (3)
Genuineness = Don't try to be funny (4), be spontaneous (1)
and finally
Pick up on the clients themes = Listen to and pick up what the other actors bring to the scene (1-5, really)

What does this similarity tell us?

Both impro and client-centered therapy is about putting trust in your own and your fellow human's genuine and unadulterated capability for creation and understanding (impro) or inner potential for growth and insight (therapy)

It is about creating a warm, creative atmosphere together, where something can grow, given space, a little nourishment and a little encouragement.

It is about using one mouth to talk, but two ears to listen, picking up everything your fellow human contributes, carefully building something out of it, be it the story of this stage, or the story of this human being's life.

To me, this is trust and love for other people.

Impro and client-centered psychotherapy mirrors each other in philosophy, and thus impro is the humanistic theatre.

So, are there humanistic role-playing games as well? Next up I'll introduce the third pillar of this blog, role-playing, which now is long due.