Avatars don't sweat: therapy and virtual worlds
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Manu Bazzano UKCP MBACP
24th December, 2008
Published in Therapy Today December 08
Thanks to John Daniel for an informative and stimulating article on therapy and online virtual worlds (The self set free, Therapy Today November 08). As I have researched the very same subject for a book (The Speed of Angels: Love, Insomnia & Information Technology, due to come out at the end of 2009), I would like to offer some thoughts to what Keith Silvester in the same article rightly calls “a very interesting debate that will probably run for many years”. He seems to confuse, however, imagination with fantasy: the first belongs to psyche and to the wider organismic sphere, whilst the second is manufactured by the ego. A computer-generated avatar is the fascinating and seductive expression of the fantasy of omnipotence brought about by an insecure ego which at all times maintains considerable degrees of control. A sub-personality is on the other hand part of the wider sphere of psyche (a.k.a. soul) and of the organism, which the ego will never manage to control with a keyboard and a mouse: with psyche (as with the organism, as with real life) the ego can only do one thing: learn from it.
Tim Guest makes a similar mistake when he equates virtual worlds to dreams, the latter being, according to him, “a place in which the unconscious is at play, not bound by the restrictions of the real world”. But in dreams – as W.B. Yeats teaches us – begin responsibilities: their language, baffling, mysterious, forever unfathomable, provides the ego with the ABC of psyche. Dreams are not the arena for ego’s unbridled and frustrated fantasies but instead a learning ground to be approached with humility. As with most of the issues that the therapy profession grapples with, it is a matter of choosing between psycho-therapy or ego-therapy. The point is perhaps unwittingly spelled out in the same article by John Suler when he says that an avatar might stimulate an “observing ego”. Indeed: it might also stimulate a controlling ego, for whom the blood, sweat and tears of existence are just too messy. It might efficiently stimulate a perfectionist ego for whom the anxieties and uncertainties inherent in face-to-face relating are just not good enough, or too scary.
Of course virtual worlds, as John Daniel points out, provide for many a way of coping, and it is wonderful that they help the men and women with cerebral palsy met by Tim Guest in Boston. This is one of many examples in which technology can be put in the service of the good. I am however sceptical of claims such as Monica Whitty’s, according to which virtual space would be akin to Winnicott’s “potential space”, a space characterized by play. What define play and creativity are the joy and the gratuitousness of it, and it seems to me that instead dissatisfaction, desire for control over life’s uncertainty constitute the dominant attributes of virtual reality.
I recognize the crucial point stressed by John Daniel, that as therapists we have to be conversant with such “realities” and the challenges that they throw to our profession. Personally, I find the prospect of mutation and metamorphosis into what some thinkers already call the “trans-human” condition truly fascinating, but there are crucial differences: for instance, in Ovid’s Metamorphosis humans, seized by powerful emotions, combust into other forms, and in this way the sheer power of human feelings and passions are honoured. The part-time metamorphosis of a bored and frustrated individual into an avatar is instead a way of shielding away those very same emotions, the body and the organism that contain them. I suspect that one of the great achievements of virtual worlds might be manifesting what institutionalized religions have failed to accomplish: the denial of the body and the denigration of human passions. The other achievement is to provide the self with an illusion of freedom: a contradiction in terms, since freedom is freedom from the self and openness to life. A self set free? Mmh…a self chained to its desk by virtual delusions of grandeur, more likely.
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