Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Making a Game About Depression that isn't Depressing

There was a long period of time last year that I had no desire to do anything at all.
Each day I would wake up and go to work, and I'd come home late in the afternoon.
I might play a short board game with the kids and help put them to bed.
And then I'd do nothing. I might watch a bunch of movie reviews on YouTube. Some days I just sat on the couch and stared off into space for hours.

My wife would ask if I wanted to watch a movie and I'd decline. 
She would ask if I wanted to play a game. Nah.
I just wanted to sit on the couch or lie on the bed and do nothing.
I didn't want to see or talk to anybody. Not my family, not my friends. Nobody.

I was declining social gatherings. I decided not to go to events that had been on the calendar for months--events I'd been excited to attend.
Friends called me wanting to hang out. I turned them down.

This became my basic routine for weeks. Months.

I also felt less and less like I was in control of my life. It's terribly hard to explain, but it felt like my body was acting, (showering, getting dressed, going to work), but my mind had little agency in how I was living my life.
Many mornings I'd look in the mirror, and I felt like I was looking at a completely different person.

None of it made any sense.
My wife and I weren't having any big marital issues.
I wasn't terribly overworked; no more than usual, anyway.
It didn't feel like burnout.
Nothing too tragic or overwhelming had happened in my life.

I told my therapist about all of this. She responded simply,
"Sometimes depression keeps you from living your life like you'd like. But that's okay. It's normal. And it can get better."

"Wait, back up. Depression? You said I had anxiety. That's what we've been working on this whole time."

"Well, they often go together. People might have one, and the other joins in."

So anxiety and depression are having a house party in my brain.
That's fun.


Last year I spoke with Marc Davis from The Thoughtful Gamer about a small solitaire card game that I designed to help work through my anxiety (you can read about that game here). We talked about gaming, mental health, and faith. During the conversation, I joked that he and I should make a follow-up card game called Depression, and turn this into a whole series of mental health card games. 
That joke became less of a joke. We actually had a couple of emails back and forth about what a Depression card game might look like. However, 2 people with busy schedules trying to design a game on opposite sides of the country turned out to be difficult. Go figure.

Still, I thought there might be something there. So for a while, I kept working on it.

I fiddled with different ideas for about six months. The game went through dozens of iterations. At times it was a deckbuilder. For a while, it was a blatant rip-off of Splendor. Then it became a simple numbers game that really didn't fit the theme at all.

Eventually I got frustrated and punished the game by putting it in Time Out for a while.

These are just some of the cards and ideas that didn't work. There are so many more.

Shortly after the conversation with my therapist, however, I pulled the game back out. With Anxiety, I wanted to make a game that caused the player to feel the way that anxiety made me feel.

I wanted to do the same thing here. I wanted a Depression game to feel like depression.

The idea of fighting against a lack of motivation remained the goal of the game. I realized that there were basically three tiers of things I wanted to accomplish on a given day. There was personal care, work responsibilities, and social/family responsibilities. Most days, I was able to handle the personal care stuff. It was the rare day where I didn't want to shower or eat anything and stayed in my pajamas all day (although those days did exist).

Discard abilities help you finish Goals without burning through the deck and losing the game

Work responsibilities were more difficult. Planning and leading meetings, writing sermons and lessons, and all of the other responsibilities I had as a pastor became more and more taxing. Some mornings I would have ambition and drive, and other days I had no desire to talk with anybody or to accomplish anything.

(As I type this, it sounds like I'm describing laziness. It's not laziness. I know laziness. This was different.)

As I mentioned before, the biggest difficulty was following through on my responsibilities as a friend, a husband, and a dad. At my worst, I didn't wanted to see or talk with anybody, including my family.

I realized that this should be the direction that I take this game. The player would progress through a short period of time (a day or a few days) of someone experiencing depression. The goal would be to try to accomplish personal, work, and social tasks while simultaneously fighting the depression that tries to keep a person down.

The goal of the game is to complete six Goal cards of increasing difficulty--one personal task, two work tasks, and three social/family tasks. As you complete Goals, you get some help for completing future Goals. However, whenever you draw a Depression card, they immediately cover up previous Goal cards, and you have to discard cards from your hand to remove them.

Depression cards impede your progress

But sometimes, you'll clear a Depression card, only to draw three more.

Because that's how depression is some days.

Sometimes you accomplish a little, only to fall apart again.

Sometimes you get everything done that you set out to do.

Some days you're so low, you spend the whole day in your pajamas.

As I said about the Anxiety game, I really only made it for myself, to help me work through some of my mental health problems.

But if you want to give it a whirl, you can buy a copy here.

And if you want to see how to play, here's a video. The cards in the video are prototypes, and some art has changed, but the game play is the basically same as in the final copy.

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