Dr. Rachel Kowert is the host of Psychgeist, a YouTube series that examines the psychology of video games. In her videos, Dr. Kowert examines such concepts as escapism, flow, esports, and Animal Crossing. She is also the research director for Take This, a non-profit that seeks to destigmatize mental health issues in the gaming industry; and she is the author of Pragmatic Princess, a children’s book about empowerment and self-reliance.
In this interview, Dr. Kowert and I talk about the role of MMORPGs during a pandemic, and what the long-term effects will be on our social skills; why the moral panic over video games has seemingly lasted longer than previous ones; how escapism can be a way not just to get lost, but also to be found; whether escaping into books are subjected to the same judgment as escaping into a video game; how Take This has adapted its AFK Rooms to online events; and what the best Final Fantasy is (and why it’s VI).
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello and welcome to the Polygamer gamer podcast, episode number 108 for December 16th, 2020. I’m your host, Ken Gagne. The psychology of video games is a topic we’ve often covered on this podcast and given how broad and deep a topic that is, it’s one worth revisiting. I’m honored that today’s guest will help us do just that. She’s written, edited and published multiple books, chapters, and papers about the psychology of video games. She’s active on Twitter, YouTube, and Twitch. She’s the research director of the nonprofit Take This. And she’s the founder of Your Own Castle, a company that produces children’s literature that empowers, educates, and inspires. Join me in welcoming Dr. Rachel Kowert. Hello, Rachel.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. What a wonderful introduction!
Ken Gagne: Well, thank you for giving us some time on the show. And may I call you Rachel, especially after that horrible The Wall Street Journal editorial this past week?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Oh goodness. Yes, you may.
Ken Gagne: Thank you. So, as I mentioned, you are an accomplished psychologist, especially at the intersection of video games, your 2013 dissertation for your PhD was on the subject of gaming in a social world. So have you always been interested in the intersection of gaming and psychology?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: For as long as I can remember, I wanted to pursue a career in psychology. So I really wanted to be a therapist actually. From day one of my undergraduate, I was like, “No, I want to get a degree in psychology. I want to be a therapist, which means I have to get a graduate to go in psychology.” But my first day in my graduate program for my master’s, we did a mock therapy session and I had this feeling that I was like, “I definitely don’t want to be a therapist anymore.” It was really interesting to me, but I realized that it wasn’t maybe what I thought it was going to be. But I continued on with my master’s program because it was through that I developed a love for research and it was through that I realized I wanted to do this intersection of research in games. So it was a little bit of a process. Psychology was always at the core of it, but research came a little later.
Ken Gagne: Do you still have opportunities to interact with, not necessarily clients per se, but do you still get that itch, scratch because clearly it was there at some point, if you wanted to go into being a therapist?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yeah. Mental health has always been so interesting to me and when I continued on my master’s program, a lot of people questioned it because they’re like, “Well, you’re not going to go and get your license and you’re not going to be a licensed clinician.” And I said, “It’s going to make me a better researcher.” And I think no question it has, because it has helped me gear my research towards research that has practical applications. As you mentioned, I work with Take This for a mental health non-profit. So now I’m really able to take my love for research and gear it towards creating resources for parents, for gamers, and for clinicians.
Ken Gagne: When I was preparing for this interview, I mentioned to somebody that I was going to be interviewing you about psychology and video games, this person who is not too familiar with either of those areas like you and I are asked, “What does psychology have to do with video games?” How would you answer that question?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Oh, that’s a funny question because one that nobody has ever asked me, so that’s a hard one to answer. I mean, psychology is at the root of everything that we do. And for me and my interest in psychology of games, as I mentioned during my masters, it came when I was seeing clients who were either playing a lot of games clearly in a way to fulfill needs that weren’t being met in other spaces. So people who were playing a lot of games for social connection, right? To find people who have similar interests that they do and using them in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily think about.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I had that cluster of people, I had a cluster of concerned parents. So for me, the psychology of games is really about understanding why people play and the impacts that it has. So working with the people, “Why are you playing so much online games? Is it because this is your social community and thus that is valuable and should be validated?” And to the parents, should they be concerned, right? Should they be concerned about psychological repercussions of playing online?
Ken Gagne: When you say that video games are often played because a need isn’t being met somewhere else, is that to say that video games are a substitute as opposed to just being their own primary source for something?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I think that it’s both. Games are definitely a primary source for a lot of things like fun and stress relief and can be a primary source for social connections certainly has been over this last year during COVID quarantine. I do think generally speaking, it probably plays a more supplementary role. A lot of parents would come to me and they’d be concerned that their children, they would say they’re playing too many games and they’re socializing only through the game. And it’s like, “Well, do they go to school?” “Well, yes.” “Do they talk to people there?” “We’ll, yes.” “Okay, we’ll do they have a job?” “Yes.” “Assumably with other people?” “Right.” Okay, so it’s not their only source of interaction. It’s just supplementing. It’s adding to the other activities that they’re doing.
Ken Gagne: And one of the areas in which you explore these topics is through your YouTube series, Psychgeist. Can you tell us a little bit about what Psychgeist is?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yeah. So Psychgeist was created to draw the curtain back behind the science of games. So as you mentioned, I have published books and I’ve published journal articles and I’ve given lots of talks all over the world. And for me, that’s wonderful and great and I love it, but I’ve always wanted to get the information out of the ivory tower so to say. To the parents, to the gamers, to people who are interested in what is flow or what can I learn from games and just the average person. So I created Psychgeist as a way to take that research, take that information, the 50 years we’ve been studying games and bring it to a broader audience.
Ken Gagne: I was going to ask you who the target audience was and you answered that because I’ve read, or rather I’ve tried to read several books about psychology and video games or taking an academic look at video games. And they are written for a very different audience from me, the casual reader. I sometimes find them impenetrable, which is in sharp contrast to your YouTube videos where I can sit down and watch any one beginning to end and feel like she wasn’t talking over me. I got that.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yay. That’s the goal. Thank you, Ken. And with academic stuff, it does have to be written in a certain way. I published this book, The Video Game Debate back in 2015, and it’s a series of scholarly essays looking at different video game effects, basically like there’s a chapter on aggression and a chapter on addiction. And then I wanted to publish one, which ended up becoming A Parent’s Guide to Video Games. But in more understandable terms, don’t talk about the P values and the different statistical tests. Give me the broad strokes. A book that a parent or a gamer could read and be like, “Okay, do I need to be worried?” And I pitched it to academic publishers and they were like, “No, we want to book that’s 100,000 words long.” And I was like, “No. That’s not the point.” So that’s exactly right. So the YouTube channel is to serve that niche.
Ken Gagne: And you break down your videos into several broad categories like Academic Ramblings, Research Review, Jargon Schmargon, State of the Research. And some of your most recent topics include the definition or a look at Girl Gamer, Escapism, Video Games and Moral Panic, which by the way, was my own undergraduate thesis. I loved that video that you did. I wish I could have done an eight minute video instead of 100 page paper about it.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I feel you.
Ken Gagne: So how do you choose these topics?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: It’s a broad spectrum game study and it is hard to narrow in and focus on one. I think when I originally started, I thought, “What are the main topics I get asked the most questions about?” And that’s where the question about escapism for instance, or what is flow. That was one of the first ones that I did. Girl Gamers came up because of that awful parade article that was published in that same month. I don’t know if you remember it. I was talking about…
Ken Gagne: I don’t.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Oh, it was like top 10 games for girls and it was things like Kim Kardashian, Dreamhouse, and just like very stereotypical, just like, okay girls play games and they play all kinds of games which is what I say in the video because I was just so infuriated by that parade article. And it also coincided with that release of, Oh, the video game, the full motion video game, Girl Gamer. The ads had just come out for that as well. So sometimes it is topical. It’s really motivated by what’s in the air. And I do also ask on Twitter sometimes, like, “What do you want to see?” And I’ve put for instance, gaming disorder, video game addiction up in the polls many times and it keeps getting voted out by other things. But I’m going to do it in January because I feel like eventually I have to address it.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: So I like to ask people what they want to see. But I also know that moral panic. That’s a big question that a lot of people like to talk about. So I wanted to make sure it hit the big notes. I still haven’t done violence and aggression. I know that’s really the big one. But soon next year, probably.
Ken Gagne: How much original research do you have to do for these videos as opposed to these R&B things you’ve encountered in your career?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I mean, I already have a general idea of a lot of them. I guess it depends on the topic. So with moral panic, I’ve written about it before. I have chapters in my books about it before, so I’ve already done the legwork so to say. It has kind of pulled it from the work I’ve already done. But things like Girl Gamer that totally came out just from the zeitgeists of that particular time and so that required full on original research to write and produce.
Ken Gagne: Do you find it difficult to condense these topics into relatively consumable pieces of media? For example, I once had to distill my 100 page paper on moral panics into a two page version for a magazine article. And that was challenging.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yeah. I mean, academics are not known for being brief. I mentioned the books earlier, so A Parent’s Guide to Video Games was the close notes version. It was like maybe 10,000 words of Video Game Debate, which was 100,000 words. And I had the general outline in a day and it took me a year to edit it. I am not good at being concise and brief. So it is difficult in the videos. I think that the advantage here is that I do a lot of short cut editing. And so it inevitably makes the video shorter. So you can get a whole lot of information in like a 10 minute video.
Ken Gagne: Those who may not be familiar with that term, what is shortcut editing?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I don’t know if that’s the actual term. It’s maybe the term I just said. But it’s in a YouTube video where after you finish a line of dialogue, you cut it right there. So you skip all the pauses and you started again at the beginning of your next line of your script so to say. So you lose all the positives. I did a, is it a keynote lecture for the national communication association? And I wrote it in a PowerPoint and then I thought, actually, I’m going to make it into a Psychgeist video because that’s more entertaining than a PowerPoint presentation. And what I had scheduled to be an hour talk turned into a 24 minute video. So that’s what that kind of editing can do for timing.
Ken Gagne: Wow. That is a dramatic reduction. And so these videos are scripted? You’re working off something that you’ve written out word for word, you’re not improving as you get on the camera.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: That is correct. I improv some of the jokes. I don’t know if they’re funny. They’re jokes to me. Sometimes I improv a little bit but they are 98% scripted.
Ken Gagne: And you did say that the next one coming up is State of the Research: Gaming Disorder. And we’ve seen in the past couple of years, conflicting reports on our video games, good for people. And the World Health Organization has gone both ways. One saying it’s a gaming disorder. The other saying it’s a great way to relieve stress and stay indoors during the pandemic. So I’m not asking you to scoop yourself, but can you give us a little sneak peek at what direction your video might go?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Of course. I’m definitely going to touch on the frustration of the World Health Organization. Generally speaking, scholars are not onboard with the World Health Organization designation of gaming disorder and the video mostly talks about what the designation from the World Health Organization is and why scholars have contentions with that.
Ken Gagne: I didn’t think that there would be that kind of disconnect. I put my faith in the WHO. I assume that they know what they’re talking about and that they’ve consulted the experts and they’ve come to a reasoned conclusion. And it sounds like in this case, scientists don’t always agree on these more perhaps abstract topics.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Definitely, especially when it comes to social sciences. There was a letter written, the scholars response that was written in 2018 in initial response to the World Health Organization saying they were going to add gaming disorder into the ICD-11. And basically, it comes down to the fact that there’s not enough research. There’s not enough research to suggest that gaming disorder in and of itself should be a separate clinical diagnosis. And the reason that’s important is because for instance, let’s say it’s a maladaptive coping strategy, right? People definitely use games in ways that can be problematic, but it was a coping strategy for depression. But you’re saying games themselves are the source of the problem.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Your treatment plans are totally different. Maybe you should be treating the depression, maybe the games are the coping strategy. If you’re treating the games and you take them away, are you then removing the coping strategy that these people are using to self treat their depression? So it’s really about teasing out, is there something unique about games that make them inherently addicting? And if the answer is yes, what is it because that research does not exist.
Ken Gagne: Sure. I’ve known people who were originally diagnosed with having a substance abuse and addiction issues, but it turned out that they were self-medicating to address undiagnosed mental health issues. And it sounds like video games can be used in almost the same way.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Exactly. That is exactly the point. And if that’s case, that’s great. We also don’t necessarily have had the great base of research to definitively say that it’s the case, which is why I think there are still these debates. Even the American Psychiatric Association who creates a diagnostic manual for North America, the World Health Organization crates it for most of the other parts of the world. But the American Psychiatric Association has not designated gaming disorder. They have it in the back of their book as a condition that requires further research. So scholars tend to be more happy with that designation saying, “Yes. Okay. It’s worth looking at. We know that some people use games in maladaptive ways. Let’s do more research and see where it lies.”
Ken Gagne: I want to go on a brief tangent, because you mentioned ICD-11. And I used to work in the healthcare industry during the time when it was transitioning from ICD-9 to ICD-10. These, for those who don’t know, are numerical codes that are associated with your diagnosis. So if you go to the hospital and say, I’ve cut my hand open, they’re going to look up laceration and limb and they’ll find that code. And that’s how they categorize it. ICD-9 to ICD-10 was much more granular. There were a lot more codes. So specifically like, “Where on the hand? Which hand was the cut?” Et cetera. “What did you use to receive the cut?” However, this podcast right now is the first I’ve heard of ICD-11. Is it going to get even more granular?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I mean, I have no idea and I don’t even think it’s out yet. I think it comes out in 2021. So we will find out.
Ken Gagne: I’m glad I’m not in the healthcare industry now because I got to tell you, some of ICD-10 was just too granular. I think they had a code specifically for hit by a piano. And I’m like, “Is this a loony tunes? What is this?” Now they’re going to have codes for specifically, where did the piano hurt you?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yes, exactly. How many floors up did it fall from?
Ken Gagne: Right. Was this a baby grand? So a lot of your videos I’ve noticed are about role-playing games, like Skyrim, Final Fantasy and the like. Is that a particular interest of yours?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yeah. Real fun games have always been my favorite genre. And it’s funny you mentioned that Ken, because the more videos they make, the more I realize that my go-to video game references are all the games I played before grad school, when I had time.
Ken Gagne: Oh, no.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: To do those things. Well, Final Fantasy VI is my favorite of all time. I used that one a lot, but I tend to just choose Zelda and Final Fantasy and Mario and the things from pre-children and pre-grad school. But yes, I love role playing games. They are my favorite.
Ken Gagne: So that means you’ve missed out on all the great RPGs that have come out in the last, like five to 10 years. Do you feel like you need to catch up and have some modern references in your video? Because I get the ones you’re talking about, but that may not be necessarily your target audience.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: That’s true and I’ve made more, I will say during quarantine hardly I’ve had more time, which makes no sense because my children are home and not in school. But I do make an effort to at least watch play throughs or become aware of Stardew Valley and Hellblade and the Final Fantasy VII Remake, which I did play a little bit of because it’s Final Fantasy and that’s my gem. But yes, I think I do. In the field that I work in, I have some obligation to at least be aware of what’s going on, but I haven’t really sat down to play through a game in a long time, maybe Final Fantasy XII, that’s embarrassing, but true.
Ken Gagne: Oh, that’s going back a ways.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: A long time ago. Oh no, he’s Googling it.
Ken Gagne: I am. Came out 14 years ago.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yeah, gosh, time flies.
Ken Gagne: It does.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I mean, I played a lot of Animal Crossing during quarantine. Like I probably could have played a Final Fantasy with the amount of hours I’ve put into Animal Crossing.
Ken Gagne: I have found that when video games become an obligation and you feel like you should or have to play something, that takes a lot of the fun out of it.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: It does, which is why I watch a lot of streamers. There’s a lot of streamers that I really enjoy watching and that helps keep me hip with the kids can.
Ken Gagne: I probably spend more time reading about video games and listening to podcasts about video games than I do playing them
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yeah, I think it’s awesome.
Ken Gagne: Because I feel like that’s an effective way to get a summary of the game. Like I’ve never played to be honest, like an Assassin’s Creed, a BioShock, a Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto, a Red Dead Redemption. And I’m not going to pretend that I know these games as well as people who have played them, but I have a pretty good idea of what they’re about.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yes. And I guess I should caveat this with my husband who funnily enough lives in the same house as me, but tends to have much more time to play video games. I have had a lot of time to watch him play. The Grand Theft Autos and the Red Dead Redemption and any game where someone chases you, I’m already out. That is not the kind of game I like to play. But I do like watching other people play them. I mean, Final Fantasy XII is probably the last one I played through, but I’ve witnessed the playing of other more recent cooler games.
Ken Gagne: If you’re not a fan of being chased, I guess, you’re not a fan of say, Resident Evil or Silent Hill.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: No. I don’t like no. Jump scares. I don’t like being chased. I played GTA. I enjoyed the open world of Grand Theft Auto, but as soon as I get three cops stars, that’s it. I’m giving it to my husband. I get too scared. I like crushing the things. It’s terrible.
Ken Gagne: I would watch a Twitch stream of you playing Silent Hill.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Gosh, I should put that up for auction because it would be hilarious. Yeah, if you work for charity.
Ken Gagne: Think of the children, Rachel.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Oh my gosh. Yeah, that would be entertaining.
Ken Gagne: So you already answered this, but I got to ask what is the best Final Fantasy and why is it VI?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yes, it is VI. VI has the best characters for me. And for me, role-playing games are all about the attachment that you have with their characters and their relationships. And VI has wonderful music. I’m going to age myself, but I don’t even care because I love VI that much. I remember filling out the little paper form in the back of the SNES to ordered the soundtrack by mail. That’s how much I love Final Fantasy VI.
Ken Gagne: I have the three CD set as well.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: We’re kindred spirits. You can’t go wrong. I think it was made also in the era where people didn’t care so much about it being mainstream or from a certain mode. Like you have the Opera scene, right? Which is relatively not totally related at all to the main storyline, but everyone remembers it. It just been like such a good component of the game. It’s the best.
Ken Gagne: What about The World of Ruin, the back half of the game though, where it’s suddenly goes from being a very linear experience to being open world. Do you feel that those two halves of the game equal in quality?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I do. I do like The World of Ruin. I like that it splits the party up and it kind of makes you feel like you’re starting back from scratch. The one, it’s not a complaint about Final Fantasy VI. I again, think it’s what makes it so compelling is that in the end you don’t really win. I mean, in the end, the allies lose.
Ken Gagne: You mean, in The World of Balance?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yeah. Well, no the world gets destroyed.
Ken Gagne: Right. But eventually they do defeat Kefka. I mean, that is the happy ending.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Well, yes. Okay. Fine. It gets happy in the end. But I mean, if you think about it, there’s not usually that midpoint, right? There’s not usually that, “Oh, wow. We’ve totally lost and now we’re all scattered across the world.” Can you think of another example where that happens? Not even in a Final Fantasy I can think of.
Ken Gagne: No, not really. I mean, there are certainly games where you think you’re done and then the rest of the game opens up like Zelda 3, you’re fighting the final villain and all of a sudden you get sent to the dark world and you realize you’ve only scratched surface.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: That’s true.
Ken Gagne: But that’s not the world being destroyed.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yeah. True. Also, I have to mention that Kefka is the best and the worst villain. He’s the best because he’s like a creepy clown and it doesn’t get scarier than that. But I talk a lot with Dr. Kelli Dunlap who’s a lecturer at American University about how Kefka is actually a really terrible villain because his only motivation is that he’s quote-unquote crazy. That should motivate everything which you never really think about that when you’re playing. You just think like, “Oh my God, this scary clown.”
Ken Gagne: Okay, well, first of all, if that is the only reason he’s evil is that he may have some a mental health issue. You’re right. That is not a good reason to be a villain.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: No, it’s terrible. It’s terrible, right?
Ken Gagne: But on the other hand, if he were more well-rounded, he might be more empathetic and thus less villainous.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: That’s true. That is a fair point, Ken. I give you that one.
Ken Gagne: In one of your videos, you mentioned that Final Fantasy offers worlds we can get lost in and we were talking about escapism, but you also said they might also offer worlds where we can find ourselves. Can you talk a little bit more about that latter aspect of escapism where you don’t escape, but you find, or maybe do both.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I find that role-playing games are really great for reflecting different aspects of yourself and the different characters. So Final Fantasy is a great example. There’s always ensemble cast, and there’s always a quality or a character that resonates with you more than the rest. So for me, in Final Fantasy VI, it was Celes. I don’t totally resonate with everything in her storyline, but there was just something about her. I just felt for her that she was an outsider as she didn’t really know where she belonged. And I think that role-playing games that leave enough of a vagueness in the storyline really allow the player to imprint themselves to use a word. But from psychology, I want to say a word from the Twilight series, because for some reason, that’s on my mind imprint on the characters that they get to play. What a weird reference.
Ken Gagne: And sadly one that I got.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Okay, good. I was like, “No, wait, that is actually a classic psychology term.”
Ken Gagne: It is. Do you find that the ability to find yourself in a role playing game is influenced by whether you’re playing a pre-made character, that the narrative hands to you, as opposed to creating your own? Creating your own characters was especially common in the early days of CRPGs where there wasn’t the technology for a strong narrative. So you had games like Wizardry and Ultima and Nox Archaist where you’re creating a party from scratch. And we’ve kind of seen it come back around with games like Mass Effect and Cyberpunk 2077. Do you find that those games offer a different experience or opportunity than a quote-unquote, more traditional RPG?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I do think so. I think there’s two points there. The first is, in a more traditional RPG, it also depends on the characters themselves. So for instance Link in The Legend of Zelda is a really good example because that character is a relatively blank slate. They’re androgynous looking, they don’t actually speak, right? And all of those features allow the player to kind of, again, imprint themselves more on the character than say like Celes, who has a set look in a set story and whatever from Final Fantasy VI. But being able to create your own character greatly enhances the ability to relate to the character if for no other reason, it gives the opportunity for greater representation of people and genders and ethnicities and backgrounds in games, which is something that game industry still struggles with creating. So being able to create your own character that looks like you and uses the same pronouns as you and has the same hairstyle as you is incredibly powerful.
Ken Gagne: And as we’ve seen with Cyberpunk, it can still present issues even when it lets you create your own character.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yeah. We can talk all day about that one, Ken.
Ken Gagne: Shall we, should we?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I mean, I haven’t played it. I haven’t played it. Like you mentioned earlier, I have read a lot of articles about the problematic side. So I don’t want to give too much of a one-sided just like talking bad about it, but there’ve been a lot of concerns let’s say about Cyberpunk.
Ken Gagne: What I’ve read is that Cyberpunk is very consistent with the studios games.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: We have a Slack at Take This and I was like, “We should be blah blah blah.” And they were like, “No, I think that’s just the kind of games they want to make.” I was like, “Okay. Okay.”
Ken Gagne: In one of your videos, you said that all roads in game studies lead to MMOs. And that includes Final Fantasy because there are MMOs in there. And I want to know, is that true? Why do all game studies roads lead to MMOs?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Because game studies as an academic discipline would not have existed if EverQuest did not get released.
Ken Gagne: Really? It only traces back to that one game.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yes. So the origins of game studies came out of EverQuest and parental concern and general concern about the amount of time that people were investing in EverQuest. And I know there were muds in MMOs that predated it. But that was really the one that made it like a little bit more mainstream. And then right after that came World of Warcraft. And when I was doing my masters and seeing the clients, it was the height of World of Warcraft. So everything was about World of Warcraft. And when I would go to get information for the parents, this is right when I decided to do a research career and people were saying, “Oh, are these games ruining my children?” There was maybe three articles published about the impact of games. And they were all about EverQuest. And then following that, we had about five years of game studies, all about World of Warcraft. And if you look today at the game studies that stuff, it’s far more diverse now. We do see a lot more different studies focusing on different populations, but MMOs is still very, very strongly represented in game studies.
Ken Gagne: One component of that is the social interaction, but there are other online games, like even back in the day of EverQuest, we had people playing Doom and Quake online. So what is it about RPGs, which MMOs generally are that is that unique intersection that inspires so much academics study?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I think it’s the persistent world. I think it was really the shift into a world that evolves when you’re not playing it. Because it really gave players the motivation to be engaged at different hours, at all hours. And then also, as you mentioned, it’s also connected so you could log on at 2:00 AM and someone else that in your Guild would be playing. So it’s different. I didn’t play Quake. My computers weren’t good enough back in those days, but it’s my understanding that people would play a Quake, not like necessarily in the pickup group, but they would have their groups that they would get together and play with.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: And they feel like EverQuest really opened the doors to here’s a world that’s going to change if I’m not playing in it. But there’s thousands of others, people playing and I can log on at any time and play with whoever and make progress and feel like I’m not missing out on something. Because the real concern from parents was exactly that they’re playing all times of the night with people that they don’t know. That was really the two main concerns.
Ken Gagne: And do you have any personal experience with this? For example, I read Felicia Day’s book and she talks about how she was unhelpfully addicted to World of Warcraft. I’ve never been much of a computer gamer, at least not since the late ’80s. So I have very little experience with MMOs myself. Although I did play a lot of muds would you mentioned back when they were very expensive and had hourly fees. So I can see some of the negative repercussions of online gaming and especially with those persistent worlds where you’re interacting with other people. What has been your gem?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I played a lot of World of Warcraft. Oh man, so much World of Warcraft. And I played all through undergrad, I played all through my master’s program. The straw that broke the camel’s back was my PhD program. I had no time. I could not play it anymore. But as I was doing, as I mentioned before got my master’s program, I was seeing parents and like the third, fourth, fifth person who was like, “My child plays World of Warcraft and I think that it is causing some kind of irreparable harm.” I finally was like, “Oh my God, am I doing something to myself that is irreparable from playing so much World of Warcraft?” So it was like end level rating, I was playing four or five nights a week, four or five hours at a time. Like I was really heavily invested in World of Warcraft for multiple years. But when I started my PhD, I stopped and really didn’t have time for anything after that.
Ken Gagne: Were you Horde or Alliance?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Alliance. I liked to follow the rules.
Ken Gagne: I find it really hard to make decisions in video games that I wouldn’t make in real life.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Right? And some people play the opposite. It’s so funny when you look at play patterns. There’s like two kinds of people in this world. There’s us, and there’s them. There’s the people who play and make decisions, the moral decisions, the way that they would in everyday life. And there’s the people who just do the opposite. Like I want to raise havoc and I want to do all the things I wouldn’t normally do.
Ken Gagne: It’s somewhat limiting to be like us because I play games like Firewatch and Life is Strange, and The Walking Dead, I know there are all these different branching narratives and all of these lines of dialogue that I will never see in here because I have to make the same decision every time.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I know. But whatever makes us happy, Ken.
Ken Gagne: I guess being a goody two-shoes makes us happy.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yes, it does.
Ken Gagne: You coauthored the chapter of a book, the chapter was Party Animal or Dinner for One: Are Online Gamers Socially Inept? Which ties into our talk about World of Warcraft. And this is something that I imagine we’ve seen a lot more of during a pandemic, which is online gaming because we can’t socialize in person like we used to. Do you think that the pandemic will correlate with a decline in social skills or have video games filled that gap and maybe even given people more opportunities than we have before?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: The latter. That book chapter is based off some of the work I did for my thesis for my PhD, which was very specifically looking at that idea that gamers are socially inept. That does playing online games, communicating through this channel that has less social cues than a face-to-face communication would just inevitably because it’s mediated through a computer. Does that lead to an atrophy of traditional social skills? Because you could argue that it’s helping foster 21st century social skills like multithreading and communicating, and gifts or whatever it might be, but how does it impact our ability to traditionally socialize? The things like reading non verbal cues, right? Or giving off on verbal cues. And then the series of studies I did for my thesis, there was no significant difference in social skills, social ability between people who play online games, people who play offline games, exclusively, and people who did not play any video games at all.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: So I’m not so concerned about the atrophying of skills. What I’m excited about with COVID besides the fact it’s horrible and I wish it wasn’t here. Let’s just throw that out there, but in terms of what it’s done for video games is it has helped shown what great social tools they can be. And for people who’ve been playing games for decades, or people like me who played World of Warcraft in the height of its popularity, we already knew this. We knew that games were incredibly social and a great way to foster friendships with people all over the world or to further foster friendships from the people down the street. And now that games became our last kind of standing fun socially connecting say from six feet away thing we could do, I think more people are finally realizing that.
Ken Gagne: So what is the world going to look like for those people when we go back to quote-unquote normalcy? When we can interact in person again. Are we just going to not partake of that option now that we have all these online social skills?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I think I can speak for my self when I say I would still play the games like I’ve been playing, but gosh, I would like to go to an in person conference. One more Zoom conference. I’m not sure I have it in me. I think that things will return back to more normalcy. People still need physical closeness and traditional interaction and we always have. Games have never been a full substitute for traditional social interaction. But I hope, I really hope with my fingers crossed that this helps us get over the hump of the moral panic around video games. You mentioned that was your specialty and I have a video about it on YouTube.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: We’ve been fighting the moral panic about games for 50 years. And now if you look at the kind of news covers you’ve been seeing about games since March, it’s skewed far more positively. We’re not seeing things about gaming addiction. We’re not seeing concerns about video game violence. We’re seeing stories about how Animal Crossing are bringing families together, right? So I hope that at least when things go back to normal that the narrative, the shifts that we’ve seen in how games are talked about in the media will stay fingers crossed.
Ken Gagne: Can you give us a quick elevator pitch of what a moral panic is?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Sure. A moral panic is an irrational fear of a new technology that’s just based on the idea that it’s of the unknown. So first it was movies. Movies are going to ruin a generation because they’re portraying smoking and dancing and that’s all bad. And then it was, Oh, Elvis. Elvis is shaking his hips, and that is going to sexualize all of our teenagers and Oh my God, we can’t have it. And then comic books and Dungeons & Dragons and then video games. So it’s just an irrational fear that is not based by any research or science, but mostly based on the fact that it’s something new.
Ken Gagne: Yeah. You named the exact four chapters of my book, which were comic books, Dungeons & Dragons and Video Games. I didn’t cover Movies.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: There you go. Movies and then the telephone. Oh goodness. Don’t get me started on that.
Ken Gagne: And writing, if we write everything down, we want to remember it.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: That’s my crossword puzzles. There’s a famous little article you can find about crossword puzzles might make women literate and that would be the end.
Ken Gagne: Oh, no.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yeah.
Ken Gagne: And look what happened.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Oh, no. We got a doctor coming into the White House. I don’t believe it.
Ken Gagne: Thank God. You mentioned that it’s often over a new technology, but then you also said, “We’ve been fighting the moral panic over video games for 50 years.” So when does a new technology stop being new?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I mean, when VR becomes popularized, it’ll take over. I think it’s just because games have just become better and better and better, right? There hasn’t been a new technology to take over. But I think that VR is really, every year we get a little bit closer to being more affordable and more accessible and more popular. So, I mean, although now we are seeing it shifts a little because there’s a lot of let’s pin this on the iPhones, right?
Ken Gagne: Yeah. Smart devices and screen time and children growing up, staring at them. I mean, children have always stared at screens ever since we had televisions. But now that they’re interactive, they’re perhaps even more dare I say addictive?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: That’s what people would say. That’s not what I’d say, but that’s what people would say. Yep.
Ken Gagne: You have a much more accurate vocabulary in this area than I do. What would you say?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Screens are very engaging and they’re designed to be. That’s the point of them. And I would really like to see 20 years from now, the research about children you grew up using educational applications on their tablets, which is primarily what young children are doing on their screens. My five-year-old’s not scrolling Facebook. My five-year-old is playing Minecraft and learning how to spell, right? So if we compare educational goals between people who grew up using these tablets and people who didn’t, I would not be surprised if you would see a significant difference with the people who had the tablets being more advanced or hitting greater goals faster because these devices are engaging. And that’s why games are great because our kids want to play them and they make learning fun. I mean, we’ve come a long way from Math Blaster!, which is what I played, which was not fun.
Ken Gagne: You don’t like Math Blaster! or Number Crunchers?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Oh man, Math Blaster! was just like equations on the screen. The stuff that my daughter has now is like actual games. Like she’s going through worlds and there’s robots and I’m like, “Wow, I wish…”
Ken Gagne: I was reading Allie Brosh’s book last night Solutions and Other Problems. One of her chapters, she says that for millennia, humans were really good at distinguishing between animate and inanimate objects. And there’s just a simple litmus test. If it’s trying to interact with you, it’s an animate object. And now with smart devices, that’s no longer the case because our phones are always talking to us and lighting up, even if we’re not near them.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Right. And that’s engaging, right? So maybe our hindbrain is telling us this is something that I should be interacting with and it’s motivating and it’s… Great. My five-year-old definitely has a tablet. But I will say, I’m on a wellness working group for the Global Esports Federation. And there’s another member on the group. He’s a neuro-ophthalmologist and his concern, and he said it multiple times and I’ve never thought about it, but it’s so interesting is that everybody’s becoming near-sighted because we have been looking at screens for a long time, but not so close to our faces. And he’s actually seeing a trend and he said something in like 50 years, like most of the population will be near-sighted because of the way that the lenses of their eyes are focusing only a few feet from their face. So unpacked.
Ken Gagne: And I wonder if that also correlates more broadly with a move from hunters to gatherers because we no longer need to look out on the ranger on the horizon to see not only what we’re trying to hunt, but what’s trying to hunt us.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Right. That’s a great point. And he actually said, people say there’s a 20/20 rule. For every 20 minutes of looking at a screen, you should look away for 20 seconds. And he was like, “Actually, it should be at 20/20/20 rule because you should be looking 20 feet away and that was exactly the point, you need to be focusing on long distance. You need to like refocus your lenses, just like a camera to stop the tiredness and the atrophy of looking, having the lens focused so close up. So I bet it as related.
Ken Gagne: Huh? I had not thought of that. I’m looking around my office now trying to figure out what can I set up to look at 20 feet away?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: That was my question and he was like, “Oh, well, it’s just like look out the window.” He’s like, “Just don’t look down at your mouse, right? Because that’s still your lens focusing on something close up. You need to look into the distance.”
Ken Gagne: I have a utility on my Mac that basically locks me out of my computer every 20 minutes to encourage me to get up, drink, walk around whatever.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Oh, good.
Ken Gagne: I got to tell you. It’s tempting every 20 minutes to just grab my phone and see what’s going on there.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: See that defeats the purpose, Ken. We will be nearsighted very soon. Yes.
Ken Gagne: I already am. The damage has long been done. Before there were even video games, I would spend so much time looking very closely in my hands at a book. I loved to read. I still do. Unfortunately, with the pandemic and the state of libraries, it’s moved to eBooks. I’m still staring at a screen, but I am still reading books. And in one of your videos, you said something that I have to assume was tongue in cheek. You said, “Nobody has ever had anything bad to say about escaping into a good book compared to video games.” That can’t be true.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Well, I mean, I think anecdotally, it’s true because if you think about the way escapism, we talk about escapism in games, it’s always framed negatively. You’re escaping into games, you’re escaping the real world, you’re leaving your lives and you’re going into this fantasy world. But the phrase escape into a good book, that has a very positive connotation. Oh, it’s taking you too far away world and you get to experience different lives. Well, that’s the same darn thing, isn’t it?
Ken Gagne: In a sense yes. But I think it also depends on what kind of book you’re escaping into. I think that at least in my experience, for example, fantasy and science fiction can often be looked down upon as, and maybe that’s not talking about the same thing, but at least I know a lot of kids were made fun of for reading books instead of playing sports. And even if you look at the Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast, Belle was that weird one who walked around town, reading a book.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: That is a good point. She is my favorite Disney princess. I mean, maybe in comparison at not the Belle example, but children who read fantasy books, compare it to other books. I can totally see that being as kind of more of an outcast genre of books to be reading. But if you ask a parent, “Do you want your kids to read The Lord of the Rings or do you want them to play Skyrim? Guaranteed they’d say read Lord of the Rings.
Ken Gagne: That’s true. That’s true. Now I have a friend who bought his child, a Nintendo Switch, which I thought was awesome. And a month later I asked him, “How’s your kid? Like the Switch?” And he said, “They won’t touch it. They just want to read books.”
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Well, you know, it’s funny because my five-year-old loves Minecraft. Oh my gosh. She loves Minecraft. She’d played all day if I let her and I have a second tablet for my three-year-old that we got him for Christmas last year, no interest. Zero. Will not play it. And he looked at it once and it’s sitting in a corner. So it is like to each their own, right?
Ken Gagne: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you set up screen time for your kids?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Not like structure screen time necessarily for my kids. Now I have a homeschool program. They used to go to school, but because of COVID they’re not. So my daughter does work in the morning and then afterwards, after all her work is done, she can play Minecraft if she wants, which she, 99% of the time chooses to do. But after every 20 minutes, she has to take a break and we do other things like crafts and go for walks when it’s not like brutally cold. I do live in Canada. But yeah, she definitely has screen time. I would say every day. She has screen time every day.
Ken Gagne: But she also likes books?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: She loves books. My daughter, Shel Silverstein, I swear that book lA Light in the Attic is memorized. She loves those books.
Ken Gagne: Awesome. And you have written or/and produced many books that we talked about in the psychology field, but also you created the book, Pragmatic Princess. Is that correct?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I did my passion project. Yes.
Ken Gagne: What is this? And what inspired you to create it?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Pragmatic Princess is an A to Z story book, celebrating everyday girls doing everyday things with their everyday abilities. And my daughter inspired it. I wrote it a couple of years ago because she loves books and I ended up getting a whole bunch of books that a teacher retired and she put her hoard of books on Facebook and I went and bought them all for like a dollar each. So every night we were reading a different book and some were better than others. But I noticed that if they had a female main character, nine out of 10 times they were a superhero or they didn’t save the day on their own. There was someone else like a male character and was always who came to save the day. There were so many stories with like animal characters, which is fun.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: But it was like, “Where are the books that just celebrate the things that girls can do that they don’t need superpowers for?” So that was really the original inspiration and I wanted a book that had a diverse characters of girls. Like where are the people from non-traditional families? Why is that to be the book like girl who grows up with grandma? Why can’t it just be a girl who has a grandma as parental figure and it’s not part of the story. Like in the background. It’s not the center of the story. Why are there no more disabled children in stories? So yeah. So I was frustrated, Ken. I was frustrated with the state of it all. And so I originally set out, I contacted a publisher friend of mine and I was like, “You write books, you should write this book.” And she was like, “Well, it seems to be your idea. Maybe you should write this book.” And I was like, “I don’t write kids books. I write science books.” And she was like, “Give it a go.” And I guess she was right because then I wrote it.
Ken Gagne: That’s wonderful. And it came out last year, is that correct?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: It come out last year. It was kickstarted. It raised $26,000 in 30 days.
Ken Gagne: Wow.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I know it was pretty fantastic. And so it came out just before Christmas last year.
Ken Gagne: And how’s the reception been?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: It’s been so good. And it’s hard being an independent author, especially with kickstarter because you don’t have the exposure, right? People don’t know that your product exists, but for the people who know it exists, I’ve heard teachers saying they integrated into their classrooms for their social, emotional component or have parents who are saying, “Oh my gosh, my daughter is mixed race and she’s never seen a character in a book that looks like her.” And it’s really just been so, so wonderful.
Ken Gagne: So it being kickstarted, does that mean it’s also self-published and you don’t have somebody marketing it for you and distribute it for you?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: That is correct. So it is a one Rachel show. The books are for sale on amazon.com and amazon.ca because I raised enough to print 2,500 copies. So there are still a thousand-ish copies out into the world. But after that, that’s it. It exists in just that form.
Ken Gagne: Did I see a tweet saying that you’re looking for a publisher to help you get wider exposure?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I am looking for a publisher. So I created this universe, It’s 26 stories. There’s 26 characters and my original pitch for this collection was I wanted a modern Berenstain Bears. I love the Berenstain Bears. I loved them when I was a kid and I have them for my kids now. But you know, like for instance, the stranger danger story, it’s like a guy in the bushes with a remote control airplane. Like, “Hey, Sonny, you’d come play with my remote control airplane?”
Ken Gagne: I remember that book, yes.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: And so it was like, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a modern Berenstain Bears?” So thinking of the Pragmatic Princess is like a character book with a character development. I’ve since written other topical stories like Online Stranger Danger as one. And so I’m looking for a publisher to bring this universe to life, with the idea of being Pragmatic Princess has already published. I understand that, but taking those characters and moving forward with short kind of topical stories.
Ken Gagne: Cool. If people want to learn more about this book or even order a copy, where would they do that?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yes. You can go to buildyourowncastle.com because a girl in the need of Prince for a castle, she can build her own.
Ken Gagne: I love it. I understand you’re working on another project that you described as Carmen Sandiego with pugs.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yes. The first book in Pragmatic Princesses, Ava, the Adventurous, every story is a name with an adjective. And she has a pug who was modeled after my first pug. And she wants to go on an adventure. So her whole story is that she wants to sail far away and she wants to see different lands. And so I also look to Carmen Sandiego and obviously video games. So working with Dr. Kelli Dunlap, who I mentioned earlier, she’s also a game designer and Randall Hampton who illustrated Pragmatic Princess. We have created a single story, kind of Carmen Sandiego inspired adventure, but Ava and her pug going on an adventure and it’s a point and click game. And you have to in the end guess where she is on her adventure based on your choices, but you see Ken, spoiler if you make the good choices, you get more clues about where you are and if you can make poor choices, like if the dog chooses to eat the sausage roll off the ground, you don’t get as good of an ending.
Ken Gagne: So you’re saying the game’s designed for people like you and me?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Maybe.
Ken Gagne: Well, you have to be your own primary audience. You don’t want to make a game that you’re not going to play.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Well, that’s true. Everyone loves a pug. Everyone loves the pug and I wanted there to be choices and everyone likes games. I feel like everyone likes games where the choices have an impact, right? Well, you don’t want to feel like your choices have no impact on the outcome of the game. So you get to make choices as the dog, whether the dog is naughty or the dog is obedient. And depending on that, you’ll get more clues or less clues about where you are. And when will we get to play this game? Oh man, I was really hoping by the end of the year, all the art is done, much more probably is going to be January.
Ken Gagne: Does it have a website?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: It does not, but it will also be up on a buildyourowncastle.com.
Ken Gagne: Excellent. We will keep an eye out of there. So we’ve talked about a lot of the different things you’ve worked on and I know we’re coming up on time, but I want to leave a little bit of time to talk about, Take This, which has been featured on this podcast several times. Susan Arndt and Russ Pitts, two of the co-founders have been guests on the show. But for those who have not listened to those episodes, can you briefly summarize what is Take This?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Of course. Take This is the first mental health nonprofit to form servicing the gaming industry and the gaming community. So we aim to de-stigmatize mental health challenges and also provide mental health information and resources specifically tailored to the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: And one of the ways that you’ve historically done that is by providing the AFK room. The a way from keyboard room found at conventions like PAX, which is a quiet space where people can just detach from the overloading stimuli. That is an event of 70,000 people that is PAX and also find licensed therapist to talk to if they need to get some immediate help. With PAX, not being a thing during the pandemic with conventions not being a thing during the pandemic, what other outreach has Take This been able to offer?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: We started our own Discord that anybody can join, which is an inclusive space that is mental health positive or very encouraging and welcoming to all there. And we hosted an online AFK Room for PAX online. So PAX condensed all of its conventions into a seven day, a 24-hour a day event, which was wild. And we hosted an online AFK Room for that event and we’ve since moved on and adapted with the times and we we’re hosting other online AFK Rooms for other events like MomoCon coming up and other ones in 2021. We’re also starting streaming in 2021. We’re going to do some more community engagement and outreach there. So that’s very exciting.
Ken Gagne: What is an online AFK Room like?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: It is like a really busy Discord, but it also has a channel staff with clinicians. It was 24 hour because the event was 24 hour. There was 24 hour clinicians available if you needed immediate help and/or be pointed in the direction of resources. And yeah, it was just a really big Discord, pretty.
Ken Gagne: That’s awesome. I was trying to figure it out because the AFK Room is normally so quiet. And so would the equivalent just be a Discord room where nobody talks?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Well, nobody talks, but if you were in the PAX Discord, the Take This Discord was quiet. On the PAX discord, the screen scrolled so fast, you couldn’t even read what was going on. It was funny because during PAX people would come to the Take This discord, and they would go to the Take This AFK Room in the discord and they’d be like, “Oh, thank goodness.” It’s like at a PAX, you always see someone sit down and they go and they take it a decompressing breath. That’s how the AFK Room makes you feel. And that is how that this chord was in comparison. So it was really great.
Ken Gagne: Awesome. I did not attend PAX online. I have been to every PAX East that’s been held. How did PAX online go?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: PAX online was wonderful. There’s pluses and minuses to virtual conferences. I really enjoyed it because I was able to be on panels with people who I wouldn’t normally be able to be on panels with, for instance, people who live in Europe, who wouldn’t travel for PAX West necessarily. And so I think virtual panels are in that way and being able to bring together different groups of people, but virtual conferences like Zoom fatigue is real. You can only stare at a screen for so many hours in a day. And a lot of the reason I go to PAX is to see my friends. It’s like my friend reunion and you didn’t get that obviously because we’re quarantined and in COVID. Generally, it was the best they could have done with what they had for sure.
Ken Gagne: What do you think the prospects are for PAX East 2021 in June?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Zero. I won’t be there. I won’t be there. No way. I don’t know if they’re going to host it or not. I know they announced that they’re going to host it. I’m also five months pregnant, so I won’t be there because I’ll have a new born.
Ken Gagne: Oh, that did not come up in my preparation for this interview. Congratulations.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Thank you. I’m not sure I talk about it too much. Thank you. But I think that 2021 for any in person mass conference, like you said, 70,000 people, it’s just unreasonable. I don’t think it will happen.
Ken Gagne: The questions you brought up are twofold. One is will the event be held? They have announced that it is, but they also said that they’re realistic that they may need to cancel. And the other half you mentioned is even if it is held, will people go because they need to have been vaccinated. And not that they’re going to like check that at the door, but you really should be. And not everybody is going to have access to a vaccine by then.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Well, yeah. So here in Canada, which we have far less people than you do in the United States, they said mass vaccinations, for people average people is not going to happen until the fall because they have to do all the frontline workers. They give giving priority to the people who live in long-term care homes. And there’s just not enough to be produced to go around that quickly. And they might check if your vaccined at the door because I heard there’s going to be like a vaccine passport, basically. Like you can’t fly on a plane unless you can prove you’ve had this vaccine, which I think is honestly reasonable. I think, but I don’t know. We might see prove that you’ve been vaccinated before you can come into this convention hall of 70,000 people so we don’t have another outbreak.
Ken Gagne: Wow. That is really interesting about the passport. I can see how that would target certain demographics more than others.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: That is an issue. I don’t know what the correct answer is, but I do know that there is zero chance that I will go into a convention center with 70,000 people if there’s any possibility that there’s going to be a spread, right?
Ken Gagne: Right. Have you been at PAX East before?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I have been to PAX East, yes.
Ken Gagne: Did you go to the 2020 event?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I did.
Ken Gagne: I was there too. And you saw them wiping down surfaces, handing out hand sanitizer everywhere. I can’t believe in hindsight that we got away with it. That event, if we knew then what we know now, it should have been canceled.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: It wouldn’t have happened. Absolutely. And I think that because it had just come to the stage. And I even Boston, which is terrifying, but I remember nobody knew how bad it was, but my friend, Dr. Sarah Sawyer, she’s a good friend of mine. We would see other people shake hands and we would sanitize our hands. Like we were not planned. Like we were not messing around. We weren’t wearing masks. We were still hugging people. Like we didn’t know we were doing.
Ken Gagne: Yeah. I remember, I was moderating a panel and one of my panelists almost the last minute dropped out because they didn’t want to come to PAX when there was a pandemic or when there was this coronavirus. And at the time I thought that that was an exaggerated response. And in hindsight, that person did exactly the right thing.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I know. Well, now we know, Now we know much more than we knew back then. Yeah.
Ken Gagne: Yeah. There’s a convention I go to every year. It’s about 120 people in July in Kansas City. And I’m hoping it’s canceled too, because even that seems ambitious.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I mean, even just getting on a plane with recycled air, I obviously miss my friends very much. I’m very good friends with my neighbors. My neighbors are like, “Do you want to come over for dinner?” And I’m like, “No.” Like, “Yeah. But no.” Like, “I’m just going to stay here until it’s all figured out.”
Ken Gagne: I hope you at least have family nearby that you can see from a front yard or something.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I do not. I’m originally from Texas. We live in Canada, but… We live in Canada now, but it’s okay. I have two children. They keep me busy.
Ken Gagne: That’s a big shift, Texas to Canada.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: It is. But I enjoy being away from the heat for sure. I like the four seasons of Canada. My husband moved here because of a job, but I absolutely love it. I’m never leaving. You have to drag me out of here.
Ken Gagne: I imagine that the last four years, you’ve probably been glad to be there.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Well, I’ve only been here two years, so I can tell you when I arrived, I was very happy. I was very lucky to have arrived.
Ken Gagne: I’m sure there are many people who wish they could have joined you.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I believe that. I feel very grateful to be here. And you know what, though? I will say, all my family’s back in the States, but my family is from Texas. So yeah. I’m glad I wasn’t there. They’re not necessarily on the same side as I am.
Ken Gagne: Got you. I hear that. We’ve covered so many topics in the last hour from books to video games, to research, YouTube channels. Is there anything else you want to talk about today?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: I mean, I feel like we’ve given my life story. I like Final Fantasy. I haven’t played games in ages. Animal Crossing has saved us during COVID-19. Yeah, I think we’ve pretty much covered it all. I’d say, Ken.
Ken Gagne: Awesome. So remind our listeners where they can find you online.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yes. You can find me on Twitter @DrKowert, D-R K-O-W-E-R-T and YouTube at Psychgeist. Oh, and my website is rkowert.com.
Ken Gagne: Awesome. Well, Dr. Rachel Kowert, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Thank you so much for having me.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer with Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog or send feedback at polygamer.net.
Ken Gagne: Although there is one question I didn’t get to ask you, which is where’s the love for Final Fantasy IV?
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Okay. Here’s the thing, I love Final Fantasy IV. I have played every single Final Fantasy, not the MMOs, every single Final Fantasy until XV. XV is the one where I had kids already and I just didn’t have time. I love them all. I love them all so much, but if I had to break them, if you forced me, it would be VI, VII, X.
Ken Gagne: Wow. VI, VII, X.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yeah. But broody clown was like my teenage years. Like, broody clown has to be number two. And X, when the voice acting, I remember just unboxing X and plugging it in and being like, “Oh my God. The game is so different now.” So I guess IV is number two for you. Is it VI, IV…
Ken Gagne: I think IV is number one.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Oh, IV is really good. I mean, have you read the book Video Games and Well-Being? Came out in January of this year and there’s a chapter written by Dr. B the Clinical Director of Take This about resilience. And throughout the whole chapter, he weaves the stories from Final Fantasy IV.
Ken Gagne: I need to look that up.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: But you said VI was the best, Ken. You said it in your question.
Ken Gagne: You said VI was the best. I was incorporating your answer into the question.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Okay. So you said IV is number one?
Ken Gagne: No. I love VI. I remember listening to that soundtrack CD set as a kid. My older brothers were listening to Van Halen and KISS and I’m listening to the Final Fantasy.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Chiptunes!
Ken Gagne: It didn’t make me any friends. I’ll tell you that.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yeah, I’m sure.
Ken Gagne: But yeah, VI is amazing. The characters are memorable. I love just like all the different stuff that you can find. Even after you’ve finished the game, there’s still more to it. But Final Fantasy IV or II, when I played, it was just such a quantum leap from the eight bit RPGs of Dragon Warrior and the original Final Fantasy where it actually had a plot and a narrative and spoony bards, and giant robots and trips to the moon. I just loved it.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Yeah, IV is great. Dragon Warrior is great too tough?
Ken Gagne: You know, this summer I went back and replayed the original Dragon Warrior and it’s still great.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: It still holds up just like Chrono Trigger. Like every decade I go back and I do Chrono Trigger and it’s like, yeah, still good. Still good game.
Ken Gagne: Every decade! That’s not often enough.
Dr. Rachel Kowert: Well, I know. Graduate school, too much graduate school.