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In the video game The Sims, the client has the opportunity to project a number of affects and perceptions through a single character or family structure, whose physical appearance and certain personality traits they have been able to shape. The client will also have to be attentive to the needs of his or her Sims character and maintain a relationship level with the other Sims encountered in the game.
In Minecraft, the client becomes an explorer and creator of the world in which his or her character will evolve, and can thus project other aspirations and desires. Confronting dangers and the risk of losing goods and resources accumulated will bring into play another dynamic in the relationship with the Self in the game.
Spore sits somewhere between these two gaming experiences: a dynamic and exploratory aspect as in Minecraft and a more marked relationship to the client’s character with an ability to mould the avatar and the relational sphere as in The Sims; however one big difference is that the avatar in Spore is editable at any time.
But Spore is not only this in-between game, it also brings something that the other games do not have that will make it a particularly relevant therapeutic mediator. I used it for the first time in October 2015.
Spore is a game that appeared in September 2008 and was designed by Will Wright, who is also the creator of The Sims. Like The Sims, Spore can only be played with a mouse, which makes it suitable for young clients who are not familiar with the PC keyboard / mouse because I use the basic version on PC.
The concept is very simple: it is about making a microorganism evolve in several phases (cell – creature – tribe – civilisation – space). The organism originates from space inside a meteorite that crashes on a planet, dispersing this embryo of life in the oceans.
The player will have to make sure that his or her cell feeds in order to grow, while avoiding predators, and by regularly working on the physical aspect of the avatar to improve its chances of survival.
These are the four key components of Spore in my eyes: to be born – to grow – to evolve – to take others into account. It is for this reason that when faced with a child who seems stuck in his or her development or struggling in relationship management because the child is too self-focused, I almost always offer Spore.
These four components are constantly found in the game, whatever phase the player is in. In the first two phases (Cellular and Tribe), you have to get in contact with your ‘half’ to reproduce and have access to the Workshop. The aim is to modify the creature and on its return lay an egg symbolising its return to the nest. I will cover them specifically in a dedicated article.
When I first offer this game to a client, I explain to them, ‘You are going to play as a little creature who crashes on the planet in a meteorite from space. We will have to help it grow so that it can one day get out of the water and walk on dry land’.
As usual, I write down everything that is said and what happens on the screen and the client’s attitudes. Each client therefore has their own saved game which no one can access. The backup comes in the form of a planet located on one of the arms of a galaxy to be named freely by the client.
The first thing the client is confronted with is naming their saved planet, an act that is similar to naming their avatar in The Sims; for some this involvement is difficult because it requires revealing something of oneself (why this resistance?…). Then it is necessary to determine what will be the future diet of the animal, carnivorous or vegetarian (the client does not know this but it is possible to change the diet during the game or even have both).
The introductory video begins in which a meteorite (carrier of life to come) is seen travelling through space, passing the sun to crash into the planet, some debris of which will plunge into the ocean. The camera then follows a piece of meteorite debris at the bottom of the ocean, which cracks opens and lets out a cell that will have to evolve in this aquatic environment that is not hostile at first.
I find this video particularly evocative of the theme of the design, with this little extra of an introduction to the primitive scene through this passive phase of visualisation where a certain curiosity can be satisfied.
The appearance of the cell by these opening meteorite elements is clearly the evocation of a birth.
The grip is immediate: just take the mouse and the cell will follow the pointer with its eyes and move in that direction. The goal is then to direct this cell towards the red balls (meat) if carnivorous or the green balls (algae) if herbivorous, or even both if the creature is equipped with both kinds of mouth.
On the screen are a number of food balls and a few other cells of the same size. For some clients, the play space is limited to what they see on the screen and they are quickly faced with not having enough food and waiting for something to happen. They have to show some initiative and dare to move the mouse pointer towards the edges to see the screen stretch and make the play space potentially very large. While for others this approach is quite natural, for some clients this already requires psychological resources to overcome the first obstacle, to push the limits of what is visible and explore beyond.
But what is only a walk in the beginning quickly becomes complicated. As the cell grows a little larger, it wanders out into the ocean and in the distance huge creatures appear which can convey an impression of potential danger. However, confrontation with these large creatures is not possible at this time because the cell is still too small, which I explain when there is a reaction of surprise mixed with worry (very common). This induces the idea that as the cell grows, it will inevitably find itself confronted with these creatures and this may therefore hold back some clients.
For them, growing up is seen more as a risk of finding themselves in danger than as an opportunity to discover the world in a positive way and learn from new experiences.
To what extent is this element found in the general functioning of the client ? Is it a part of his or her perception of the world? Can playing Spore in therapy help the child to work on this aspect and transfer the experience of play-mediated therapy into everyday life?
This first presentation of Spore made it possible to ‘set the scene’ for a rich game because it was able to offer a large number of situations that could mobilise the psyche of clients around the four key components that I have identified in the practice of this video game and therapeutic mediation: to be born – to grow – to evolve – to take others into account.
These four components will be the focus of the next article devoted to Spore.
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