Dr. Phil McGraw is a psychologist turned television talk show host who first rose to prominence in The Oprah Winfrey Show in the 1990s prior to migrating to his own show in 2002, simply entitled Dr Phil. In it, he deals with a wide range of topics, offering advice in the form of “life strategies” based on his experiences as a psychologist.
The show is a staple in the diet of US weekday television, and in the run-up to the July 14th show, Won’t Work, Won’t Go to School: “My Son Just Wants to Game All Day”, there was much brouhaha about the announcement that Second Life would be featured in the segment.
“Featured” tends to suggest a major role; as such, there were many efforts to promote the platform’s inclusion in the show through social media. There were also a number of blog posts expressing some concern as to how SL would be represented in the show.
Such reactions are understandable. This is our platform after all, so promoting it when the mainstream media will result in a natural reaction of anticipation. However, given the focus of this segment was advertised as being about computer game addiction, the anticipation was countered by a degree of concern as to how the platform might be portrayed.
In the event, any concerns regarding just how Second Life might be portrayed proved to be without cause. Not so much because SL is shown fairly positively within the programme, but rather because, quite frankly, its role in the show was pretty minor; the overall focus for the programme was squarely on the stated subject of computer game addiction.
We often joke about being “addicted” to this or that – including computer games; but the truth is that in extreme cases, “addiction” is precisely the correct term. Those suffering from it demonstrate the same responses and reasoning as those caught in more “traditional” forms of addiction such as drugs or alcohol; so much so that it is now beginning to be treated as a clinical condition by healthcare specialists.
Such is the case with the focus of the show: 23-year-old Justin, who is in every sense of the word, an addict. He is almost completely dependent upon playing computer games to the exclusion of all else (other than marijuana), including caring for his own body.
To be honest, it was this aspect of the show which caused me more concern than how Second Life might be presented.
Addiction of any sort can be a traumatic situation for all parties caught within it; be it the person with the addiction or their family or loved ones. As such, I couldn’t help but wonder just how Dr Phil – a programme I’ve admittedly never seen before, but which has oft been accused of taking a “simplistic” approach to the topics covered – would handle the issue. Would it sensationalising the issue and Justin’s situation, or would it reduce the issue to platitudes and sound bites for the sake of daytime television?
However, what we actually get is a reasonable study of Justin’s life and the factors which have contributed to his situation. These include long-standing family history (suicides, mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse); his mother’s own reticence to constructively deal with his childhood obsession with video games; his own personal trauma of being hit by a car at age 15, with a possible undiagnosed closed head injury that brought about a subsequent change in his nature. All of these are covered in a manner which is neither accusatory nor gratuitous, with Dr. Kenneth Woog of the Computer Addiction Treatment Program, providing context for the similarities between computer gaming addiction and more recognised forms of addiction.
There are the inevitable elements of drama in the show – notably around Justin’s examination by Dr. Rachael Ross and the clips of his home lifestyle; but on the whole what is presented here is a balanced look at a young man’s addiction, although it has to be said that given the segment is just 38 minutes in length, some matters are only lightly touched upon; at several points I found myself wanting Phil McGraw to follow-up more closely on comments passed by both Justin and his mother.
However, for a show that does get critiqued at times for its manner in addressing some issues, as noted above, this one did seem to offer a solid means by which Justin could obtain further help, both through the Lawlis Peavey PNP Centre (often used as a referral centre in the show) to further evaluate Justin’s condition, and the offer of a stay at a dual diagnosis treatment centre to help Justin deal with his addiction, depression and anxiety. I’d also hope that some measure of support was also extended to his mother and step-father, both of whom could perhaps use some counselling in how to more positively support Justin in handling his addiction.
I’m still not overly convinced as to the amount of clinical good that comes out of programmes like this, and there is certainly a good deal that could be debated about their merits or otherwise. As it is, and strictly in terms of this particular segment, it would be interesting to see a follow-up, say a year or so hence, so that we might learn how Justin has managed with his addiction and the results of the assistance offered to him.
As far as Second Life is concerned, the show references it twice. The first time is just after the opening titles, when there is around 90 second of footage showing McGraw’s avatar in-world (and McGraw initially manipulating it). Then, around two-thirds of the way through the show, Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg gets to talk about the more positive influences of virtual environments, overlaid with further clips from in-world, for about 60 seconds. In both instances, the platform is used to underline the fact that engaging in computer games and virtual environments is not in itself necessarily toxic, and to counterpoint any generalisations that might be drawn that this is the case. As such, I’d say the platform stood up well in the show.