Monday, October 20, 2008

Dr. Phil Virtual Chaos Episode

Now that the Dr. Phil Show has aired, I’m legally free to blog about the experience of being on the Virtual Chaos show, and the content of the show itself. Yes! There’s so much to comment on that it’s tough to choose what to hit first. So I’ll go with how very ironic it is to be accused by Dr. Phil of defending the game industry (i.e. not being objective) because my husband is a designer. Most people assume from the title and cover of my book, Game Widow, that I’m anti-industry. And truthfully, when I started researching this issue in 2002, I was so angry about being a game widow that I included the industry and everyone involved with making games in that rage. It’s been a long road, and I can laugh now at being told I’m pro-industry. Not because I’m pro- or anti-, but because I’ve finally hit that place where I can be factual enough to be accused by both sides of being on the other side. It’s a strange feeling.

When I told my mom I was invited to be on The Dr. Phil Show, she asked, “Do we like Dr. Phil?” In a polite way, I think she was concerned that if I were pushing for a more even-handed and educated approach to problems with video games, Dr. Phil might not be the right forum. I explained to her that going on the show was the right thing for many reasons. First, I believe that the American people are savvier than Hollywood and politicians give them credit for being. After decades of being exposed to movie and television spectacle, we can all pretty much separate showmanship from substance. Second, the people who watch Dr. Phil are looking for direct, non-nonsense approach to difficult subjects. I offer that in Game Widow. Dr. Phil invited me to be an expert on the show because he is not one on this particular subject. Third, Dr. Phil has a very large audience, some of whom might be one of the small percentages (10-20% max) of gaming families in which there is someone abusing entertainment. When you’re starting from scratch, it’s hard to join the debate in the middle. Game Widow will get those people up to speed.

The contracts I signed before going on the show made it very clear that Dr. Phil is not a licensed mental health or counseling professional anywhere. (I should also add here, I’m not either.) Those contracts also made it clear that if Dr. Phil messed me up worse than I already am, or I’m pissed about how he twisted my words or manipulated/used me, I can’t sue. (But I can blog, now that the show has aired!) And yes, Dr. Phil did a great demonstration on Virtual Chaos of exactly the opposite approach of handling an abusing gamer that I recommend in Game Widow. But that will make it just that more amusing for people who’ve bought the book because they saw the show. Irony, after all, is a form of humor.

But I think the most important thing to point out in this flagship blog about the Dr. Phil Virtual Chaos episode is the way pre-existing mental health and substance abuse issues for abusing gamers was purposely glossed over, if not completely omitted. I overheard a staff member backstage telling Brad not to mention that he struggles with bi-polar disorder. The explanation? Dr. Phil doesn’t want to talk about that particular issue. Then he didn’t challenge Liz Wooley when he pulled out of her that her son wasn’t completely healthy, but had A.D.D. and epilepsy prior to his gaming, and before he chose to kill himself while his game ran. If Dr. Phil’s definition of a healthy person includes someone struggling with physical and mental health disorders, and those with learning disabilities, that’s important. Especially since his real effort was to make it sound like any normal, healthy person could suddenly flip out and abuse games to the point that they lost everything. While this makes for great television, it certainly doesn’t make for great accuracy. While there are no independent quantitative studies that show the percentages on this, I’ve noticed in my qualitative research that “healthy” is a relative term…see my previous blog on this particular issue. My definition of healthy and Dr. Phil’s are clearly different.

Do I think Dr. Phil is evil, and out to take down the game industry or villanize players? No. I think he’s a showman. I think he did the quintessential show on “game addiction” because his viewers are concerned about game abuse. Perhaps now that he’s covered the standard basics of one perspective so thoroughly, there’s room for a public discussion of other perspectives, thus adding more nuance to the public discussion. After all, most media outlets have only so much time and space. And there’s oh, so much more to talk about.


The Freewaydiva said...

Good lord. I found Dr. Phil's treatment of his admittedly addicted guest to be deplorable. Humiliating someone on national television as a "tough love" tactic is pitching pretty low, and is probably counter-productive at best. What an ass.

And bringing you on as an "expert" for a five-minute soundbite at the end after all the DRAWMA didn't seem to add anything, pro or con. Were you supposed to be a counterpoint to something? He asks very directed questions ("leading the witness," anyone?) and then just blows past the answer if it doesn't fit the point he wants to make.

It will be interesting to see what real psychologists will do with the information you provide. I hope you get feedback on that.

jennatar said...

Hi, Wendy,

I heard about the show a little belatedly, so I've been poking around online today, looking for clips of the episode. I know a lot of gamers and industry folks were interested in seeing the show, if only because we expect that very real issue to be (characteristically!) oversimplified and even mistreated.

On the bright side, the Dr. Phil website plugs your book! I hadn't heard of it before (although I am all too familiar with the phenomenon), and I can't wait to read it!

Rhoelyn said...


I will definitely go back and watch this Dr. Phil episode. From our talk, today, and this blog, I've clearly missed an interesting show.

Off-topic, I wanted to let you know that it was nice meeting you in the Austin Westlake B&N. I have already read chapter 1 and part of chapter 2, and I was impressed at how your discussion nailed all the points that I had been pondering about what makes the games appealing ("seductive" is such a great word for this effect). I will be sure to let you know when I've finished the book and reviewed it on my blog. I know my audience will be fascinated to read about your work, here.

Best wishes,
~Angie from Austin