Friday, December 7, 2012

In which the Missed Trigger policy touches a nerve

Today I came home to find that the topic of the evening was the current Missed Trigger rules. Melissa DeTora wrote an article on how the strategically correct, technically legal play regarding missed triggers often feels morally wrong now, as it typically takes advantage of the fact that a player forgot to—or didn’t bother to—verbalize a trigger that seemed obvious or irrelevant. I suspect this problem will eventually resolve itself, as players become accustomed to mentioning every single trigger, but the important thing for now is that players are feeling pressured to made decision that feel shady.

This wound up being quite timely, as I navigate the internship application process for my graduate school program. On the application, you have to fill out how many hours of experience you have in each category—individual therapy, family therapy, assessment, etc. Many activities don’t fit neatly into one category or another, so we’re given a fair amount of discretion in determining what category our hours fall under.

Some categories are far more prestigious than others, so there is a strong incentive to be a little creative—or a lot creative—about what qualifies for these top categories. Given the ambiguity, it isn’t too difficult to convince yourself that your classification is justifiable, and a lot of people do it. But it’s not comfortable, because you know when it’s not quite right. I see it on the faces of other applicants when they explain why they categorized something the way they did. I don’t do it. I can’t do it.

I felt pretty good turning in my application with its precise categorizations, even though I know this made me look less competitive than people who are more lax in their criteria. Hopefully I’d be able to make up the quality elsewhere. I was optimistic.

Then the rejection emails started coming, and suddenly I didn’t feel quite so great. It sounds good to say that losing with integrity is better than winning without it, but that’s a bit hard to keep in mind when you’re looking at the possibility of pushing your degree back a year.

On Twitter, Rules Manager Matt Tabak said, “I’m sympathetic to players not wanting to feel like jerks, but ‘the rules should force me to be sporting’ isn’t really a winning argument.” I see people’s complaints as not wanting to rules to make them be sporting, but wanting the rules to make everyone be sporting. It just feels awful when the situation is set up so that your values become a significant liability.

I don’t know what this means for the Missed Trigger rules. There is always going to be someone who is willing to push the boundaries further than you. Some people are desperate enough that they decide the guilt is worth it, and some just have a different definition of what is sporting. You will often lose to these people. If sticking to your guns was always rewarded, it would be the default choice.

That said, it would be nice to avoid putting people in unwinnable situations as much as possible. Tabak said, ‘Still, some small part of me is crying out ‘If it feels wrong, don’t do it.” But let's look at that situation: now you may have knocked yourself out of the Top 8 because you declined to play the game to the fullest. If there was something major on the line, I certainly wouldn't be feeling proud about how I sacrificed something I wanted in order to not look like a jerk. I'd be feeling cheated.

Going back to my internship applications: Will I be just as precise in categorizing my hours if I have to apply again next year? Through gritted teeth, I say yes. Accuracy and transparency are two of my core values. Am I upset that the system makes me choose between those values and being maximally competitive? Dear God, yes.

The MTG design people talk about the fact that you can get players to do anything if you set up proper incentives, but it feels bad when players are compelled to do something they don’t want to do. With the current rules, players seem to be set up to feel bad no matter what they do.  

I know creating a good Missed Trigger policy is hard. I certainly don't have any brilliant ideas about how to repair it. I know it’s going to be imperfect no matter what, because it's a really complicated situation. It just seems like there’s got to be something better than making people choose between feeling like a jerk and feeling like a sucker. We get enough of that in the rest of our lives.

Monday, November 5, 2012

In Which Wreck-It Ralph Breaks My Heart

This weekend, I went to go see Wreck-It Ralph with some friends and family. As anyone who follows me on Twitter or Facebook has probably heard by now, I loved that movie. I’m the right age to have a strong attachment to most of the cameos, I enjoyed the plot, and overall I just thought it was really a well-done film.

Even beyond that, though, I found that the movie resonated with me in a fairly uncommon way. I’m really fascinated by BrenĂ© Brown’s shame research, and I see shame as a major theme in Wreck-It Ralph. BrenĂ© Brown contrasts shame and guilt, saying something to the effect of “You can’t apologize for shame. Guilt means you made a mistake. Shame means you are a mistake.” This is relevant for Ralph, who is permanently locked into the villain role both by the people around him and by his own temper. And this is particularly poignant with regard to Vanellope—we learn early on that she is quite literally a mistake. She’s a glitch.

As you would expect, I loved Vanellope.  I loved Vanellope, and not just because Sarah Silverman is an awesome voice actor. Despite being shut out and relentlessly insulted by the other characters in her world, despite knowing that she’s not quite right, Vanellope makes the best of what she has. As much as she possibly can, she believes in herself.

A little bit of background information—when I was a kid, I was bullied. A lot. My ADHD meant that I never shut up, my Tourette Syndrome made me an easy target, and overall I was just socially clueless. I was aware enough to know I was different, but not enough to know what to do about it. I asked the other kids to teach me to be normal, but they were just little kids too. They didn’t know how to help.

I eventually got my act together in my teens, but I never forgot what it was like to sit down near a group of kids at lunch and watch them stand up in unison to move away. Like children of the depression hoarding pennies, or people looking in the mirror and seeing the overweight children they used to be, I am still vulnerable to people suggesting that I am somehow inherently unlikable. I’ve gotten pretty good at defending against that fear, but there’s always that gap in which I feel it acutely.

Because of this personal soft spot, I was really moved when Ralph tells Vanellope that the players are going to love her. He says, “You know why? Because you’re a winner. And you’re adorable. And everybody loves an adorable winner.” This is untrue, of course. Everybody doesn’t love anybody. But although Vanellope is an outcast among the racers, Ralph believes that she is inherently lovable and that the players will adore her.

I’ve been fortunate to have some awesome cheerleaders, especially in recent years. And I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to be a cheerleader. My favorite thing in psych is working with people with chronic or developmental disorders, because shame has become such an inherent part of many of those conditions. It was amazing how many people in the psych hospital where I did my training threw around the words “crazy” or “loonies”—and not in the wry, self-deprecating way that I’ve found can be pretty adaptive. This was vicious and hopeless, echoing back the way society and the media write them off as valueless. A significant part of my job as a therapist was just believing (and communicating) that my clients were lovable people. Not just that I cared about them, implying that I maybe had some sort of caring superpower, but that they were inherently worth caring about.

This is why I found it such a crushing scene when Ralph destroys Vanellope’s go-kart to stop her from racing. The villain had convinced Ralph that if Vanellope became a racer, the players of her game would see her glitching and think the game was broken. For complicated reasons (go see the movie if you haven’t yet) this would spell disaster for everyone involved.

Now, Ralph did what he did out of a desire to protect her. He was afraid that if she raced then she would literally be destroyed. But to believe that, he had to believe that the players would reject her because she was damaged. He had to believe that her glitchiness made her inherently unlovable, and that she needed to hide herself so that she would never risk getting rejected. And this was, of course, an extension of his own fears about himself.

The whole scene was terribly sad, of course. The smashed kart that they made together, Vanellope telling Ralph, “You are a bad guy!” But it was absolutely Ralph’s loss of faith that had me crying into my sleeve in the middle of a packed movie theatre. (As much as I tend to be stoic in my day-to-day life, I’m that much more emotional at movies and books.)

It’s so easy to want to protect someone from failure when they have a weakness. I’m still on the awkward side relative to the average psych student, and I’m sure many of my supporters will be holding their breaths when I interview for internships. But I thought my current training site was a long shot, and I almost didn’t apply. Without the people who had faith in me when I had none in myself, I probably wouldn’t have.

One thing I’ve learned is that there are so many moments each day, big and small, when a person’s hope flickers. Pile on enough of those moments and it can go out completely. I don’t like to see the people I care about struggle—especially in situations where I knew that failure was probable. But in the long run, it’s a whole lot better than knowing I helped them give up.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Story of What Wasn't

Earlier tonight, Brendan Weiskotten sent me a link on the neuroscience of storytelling. Or rather, the neuroscience of story-listening. In the video he sent me, some scientists talk about how people’s hormones and brains reacted to a story about a man whose son was dying of cancer. Unsurprisingly, they found that the story activated parts of the brain related to theory of mind and empathy. Not only that, but people who had a stronger reaction (measured by levels of cortisol and oxytocin in the blood) were more likely to give money to a stranger or charity afterwards.

I found this video both fascinating and a bit troubling. My hyperrational side is perturbed by the trend I see sometimes in charity solicitations and the media, where the person who can present the most sentimental story wins all. I really don’t like to be pulled by my heartstrings when I’m working, because I don’t want the person with no story (or rather, who chooses not to share their story—everyone has a story) to get overlooked.

Recently, though, I’d been trying to work on my application essays for internships. Again and again they were coming out totally flat. Anyone reading them would doubt whether I really wanted to be a child neuropsychologist. I was starting to doubt whether I really wanted to be a child neuropsychologist. Honestly, I was starting to doubt whether I really wanted anything.

For the last month, I’d been training to do neuropsychological assessment, which is loads of fun. It’s actually a lot like learning the rules for a complex game— If they’re under age 9, start with question 1. Otherwise, start with question 7. Stop when they get three wrong out of five in a single set. If they miss the first question, go back to the easier ones until they get two right. I’m generally considered to be pretty good at it (I credit gaming) and I really enjoy it. But we’d been testing each other for practice, not clients. It was fun and intellectually satisfying, but it didn’t feel real. It didn’t feel like it mattered.

And then, I was assigned to conduct my first classroom observation. It was at my old school, which added to the poignancy; during gym the kids still sit in “squad order” and hold up “code zero” (zero talking), just like I did more than fifteen years ago. I watched the kids for an hour and a half, and BAM. I remembered why the hell I’m in graduate school. I went home that evening and my internship essay wrote itself.

It wasn’t just seeing the kids that stirred me up, that reminded me how much I cared. Sure, they were cute and fun. Kids are pretty much always entertaining to work with. But what got me was that eventually they won’t be kids anymore. The day I was observing them, and all the days after that, will have become the kids’ stories.

I thought about my friends who had already been having trouble by elementary school. One had become quite successful through willpower, ingenuity, and luck. He talks about his difficult childhood as a party story, spinning it for maximum entertainment. But when he is alone with someone he trusted, the same story is one of loneliness and fear. He’s one of the lucky ones—others have given up hope that they’ll ever attain the good end. Looking at the kids, especially the troubled ones, I realized that they’re still at the very beginning of their stories. There’s still plenty of time to rewrite.

You wouldn’t think neuropsychological testing is a place you’d find much emotion. We don’t talk about feelings, we talk about “Spell ‘pencil” and “Push the button whenever you see a black square” and “Draw me a house.”

But, just like Brendan’s video demonstrates, the power is in the stories. The stories of what happens to so many kids who don’t get help. Of what could happen to this kid. As I prepare to do my first round of testing, I imagine a different story: in this one, we figure out what the problem is, and the interventions are put in place. My client grows up to be happy, successful, and completely unaware of what could have been.

Not terribly dramatic, but that suits me just fine. The world is already full of sad stories and I can imagine more any time I want. By becoming a child psychologist, I have the chance to keep a few of those stories safely in my imagination and out of the world.