After I sent the game in to indiegames.com, John Polson asked me what I felt I had learned from the experience, and I ended up writing quite a bit. It was a great question because it gave me the opportunity to really think about the prototype, and what we had created. They posted about the game before I sent my response to his question, but I feel like what I wrote would be good to share.
Good question! The blog post is pretty vague because I'd only just “finished” it - and since I was getting ready to present it to the Albany chapter of the IGDA I was a little more caught up in explaining why I made it.
Thinking about it, I’m not really sure that I “learned” anything specific about experiencing anxiety. Instead I would say that we did a study of it by trying to recreate it in game form. It’s like sketching a figure; where you need to be able to identify the individual parts and understand how they fit together in order to make a realistic drawing. You know that there are arms and legs – like I know that my heart is beating fast and my mouth is dry – but can you put them all together to make something recognizable? The thought was that in breaking down those smaller parts and really looking at them, I might be able to identify them and maybe freak out a little less the next time.
That’s probably all of the answer that you need, but when I was trying to answer your question, I wrote all of this other stuff about the specific decisions we made. Maybe you will find it interesting?
Regarding the system itself, my partner and I only just started to scratch the surface (it was only 48 hours, after all), but there were a lot of things we started to identify. How does the stress grow? Is it linear? Is it just based on proximity to the guy you’re trying to talk to? Real life stress is more slippery than that, so for this prototype, your proximity to the guy affects your rate of becoming more anxious. There are definitely more factors we’d like to include (for example, if you don’t see him, and then suddenly realize he is standing next to you – it would shock you into a higher state of stress).
Physically, what happens when you are experiencing anxiety? You definitely experience a change in heart rate, which is how we ended up working with this idea based on the theme. We represented this by visualizing the heart rate - which also ended up evoking the feeling of tunneling vision, which adds to a sense of panic. I also find that it becomes hard to focus on what is going on around me, because I am focusing in on what is happening to me. We tried to show this by manipulating the sound, since there’s no actual conversation to tune out.
How do you calm down? (That’s the real question!) How can other people help you or hurt you when you are dealing with the problem? For me, it seems like the only real way to deal with anxiety is to get my mind off of it. In real life, this so far has meant excusing myself and getting some time alone, because I am usually experiencing stress from talking to other people. In the game, you can stand at the edge of the party to cool down. In an abstraction (since there is a single point of stress in this case), we also decided that the other people could serve as distractions. Talking to others puts you into a “cool down” state, where your anxiety decreases linearly, although it’s a slow change. Unfortunately, you don’t have any control over how long you talk to them, because you can’t just walk away from a conversation - so they make it harder to get to the guy when you are feeling up to it.
I wasn’t able to learn how to conquer my anxiety in 48 hours (that would have been a cool story), but I was able to break some of what was happening down into smaller pieces. I am hopeful that this will give me a point of reference the next time it happens to me, and perhaps help me to deal with the situation?
As a side note, we also learned some things about making games. I didn’t have any doubt going in that a game would be able to capture this experience, but I was surprised that simplifying the graphics (which was done out of necessity) actually made the effect more poignant. Thinking about it now, I think we’ve seen many times that icons can end up creating a much more personal effect than realistic models because you are being asked to fill in the blanks by engaging your imagination. Sometimes when I play, I experience moments that line up too well with reality and it freaks me out. For example, I have had moments where I finish a conversation, turn back to the guy and realize that he is all alone and I am about to approach him - which actually makes my heart race a little bit. (I’d like to expand the game so that you can only speak to him when he’s not engaged in another conversation.)
The reception has been interesting too. We wanted to be really careful about oversimplifying the experience, because we didn’t want to trivialize what’s actually happening in real life. When you talk to other characters to calm down, we didn’t want it to be an instant solution, or else you would think you could just “talk to 3 guys and beat the game.” It’s intentionally slippery and frustrating, a lot of things are outside of your control, and when you think about it as a game it seems unsuccessful. It’s definitely not “fun” to play.
I don’t think this is a perfect prototype, and there are things about it that don’t work (for example, because there are so many random variables, sometimes it’s really easy to talk to the guy), but I do think we might have just started to touch on something. It was definitely an interesting experiment.