Anxiety has been something that I have had to deal with throughout my life. It was there even before I knew what anxiety was, or that it wasn’t something that everyone felt, or even what the full extent of my reactions to it could even be. I’ve written about it before, but I wanted to include it specifically in this series of articles and explore it in a different way than I have in the past. In my previous article about anxiety, I wrote about why games are a common coping mechanism for those who experience it. In this series, I wanted to approach things from a different point of view. Here, I will be examining how games can be used to show someone who has not experienced this kind of anxiety directly what goes into those feelings and thought processes, and how those of us who do experience it develop coping mechanisms and manage the things that happen in our lives.
It is no real secret that anxiety is becoming a greater and greater issue in modern society; yet it is something that not many people who haven’t experienced it are able to fully comprehend. It goes beyond simply being worried about something, and beyond even the idea of something bad happening in the future. Anxiety is a combination of mental and physical reactions that can make a person paralyzed in the face of a real or imagined crisis. Oftentimes, those of us who are experiencing extreme anxiety are faced with the difficult choice of dealing with what is going on in the present or stockpiling our resources (whether mental, physical, or emotional), to deal with whatever the next crisis will be. It doesn’t even matter if we are unaware what the next crisis is, we just know there is going to be one.
The two games that I have picked out as representative of this state of mind are not video games. In a departure from what I normally write about, I am going to show how two tabletop board games, Big Book of Madness and Dead of Winter can give a person insight into what goes on in a person’s thought process when severe anxiety takes hold.
It might not be too much of a stretch to say that a game with the title Big Book of Madness can be interpreted to deal with mental health in some manner. The premise of the game is that the players are students from a familiar-yet-not-copyright-infringing wizard school who venture into the ‘super restricted section’ of the library in order to find materials to help them ‘study’ (read: cheat) on a test. The book that they decide to open immediately starts to spit monsters out at them, and they must pool together their knowledge and resources to put the monsters back in the book before they destroy the school.
Mechanically, the way this plays out is that a monster will be revealed and the players have a certain number of turns to deal with the monster before something bad happens. In addition to that, each turn involves the possibility of an additional bad thing happening in the form of a curse. Players have access to elemental mana in the form of cards drawn from a personal deck, which can be added to through purchase or as a reward for breaking a curse. Players also have access to a personal spellbook which provides various effects that can also be added to through purchase. Finally, and this is the most important part, the elemental mana which is a player’s basic resource can be shared.
See, Big Book of Madness is a cooperative game in the same way that a group project is a cooperative endeavor. It gets progressively worse the closer the deadline is: a player has to keep constant track of what everyone else is willing and capable of doing, and it is entirely possible to lose the game at the very beginning but not know it until the final deadline. Throw in the detail that one set of spells that the players have access to involves mind control, which mechanically manifests as passing one or more of your actions to another player, and it often feels like one person is coordinating all of the work for the team and may as well just be doing that work themself.
The major reason for this perceived need for control is that in this game, the players immediately start at a disadvantage. The first negative effect hits the players immediately upon starting the game, and subsequent effects continue after the first turn. There is no ‘preparation’ to be had before the bad stuff starts to hit, and so there is always the concept of the ‘present crisis’. There are actions that a person can take in order to prepare for the future, such as acquiring more resources, attempting to upgrade one’s personal spellbook, or ‘curing’ bad effects that start to build up each time a player exhausts their deck of resources. However, each ‘preparation’ action takes away from a player’s ability to deal with the present crisis and can in fact make dealing with the present crisis impossible. In this game, just like in real life, small failures start to add up until things reach a point where the game is not winnable, even though the actual losing condition may not occur until several rounds in the future.
Anxiety can manifest in much the same manner. Even if there isn’t a real crisis on the horizon, anxiety can oftentimes lock us into the mindset of “dealing with what’s now versus preparing for what’s next”. The feedback loop that anxiety places into a person’s brain ends up putting one into the state of mind that there is always a next crisis. Whatever life can throw at a person now, it always has one more thing to hit us with at the moment we have exhausted all our resources dealing with the present. Sometimes the resources we are dealing with are the physical ones: money, time, and other necessities like health, vehicles, and shelter. Sometimes they are mental and emotional resources as well. The point is that in a mindset controlled by anxiety, we ‘know’ that we are going to run out of those things and if we do not perform the balancing act of ‘dealing with the present or preparing for the future’, we will be left with nothing once the ‘next thing’ somewhere down the line hits.
This manifests in a nearly obsessive need to control one’s surroundings. The person being influenced by their feedback loops of anxiety will feel as if they are the only one who can prepare and plan for the future because to share that burden introduces uncertainty and chaos into the system. In Big Book of Madness, this is represented by giving each player the initial ability to pass part of their turn to another. This might seem like a giving up of control, except that in this environment it usually results in the player giving up their action being the one to dictate to another player what they end up doing with that action. The reality is that in order to be able to effectively make this choice, a player needs to know exactly what the other players can do and what effect taking their turns early is going to have on the overall plan for dealing with the crisis.
In contrast to the purely collaborative effort that is Big Book of Madness, the second game in this analysis, Dead of Winter, throws a little bit of active hostility into the mix. In this game, the players take on the personas of a group of survivors in a zombie apocalypse. Again, it’s not a gigantic stretch to say that this game deals with the mental strain that would be placed on someone in such a situation. The interesting part, though, is how the game examines that theme and how the experience can give hints to the player as to what goes into the thought processes of someone dealing with chronic anxiety.
Just like in Big Book of Madness, a crisis is revealed and the players have a set number of rounds in order to deal with it. In this game, that is represented by the gathering of resources in order to stave off things like hunger, disease, and the ever-present threat of the reanimated dead. Players can make the choice to scout various locations for resources or stay behind in the settlement and prepare. Of course, resources aren’t infinite, and scouting a location to obtain resources for the present crisis reduces the availability of those resources for the future.
If Big Book of Madness heavily encourages the player to know what every other character is capable of, then Dead of Winter practically requires it. In this game, each player has their own hidden objective on top of basic crisis management and colony survival. Some of these goals serve to enhance cooperation, as they involve management of resources that a player would be doing anyway. However, other goals may guide players to secretly undermine the others and the colony at large, either in the interest of hoarding resources for themselves or actively seeking the failure of the colony.
The challenge in this game is to keep track of who is doing what, and who is capable of doing what. Does a person have a resource they aren’t sharing with the colony? Has a person used something in a wasteful manner that should have been saved for later? Have multiple people seen what one player is planning and are, themselves, working against that plan? These exercises in social engineering might be firmly rooted in the game mechanics, but they are also representative of the thought processes of those who feel a compulsion to exert complete control over their own situation in life.
The compulsive need for control is not the only way that anxiety can manifest. It is a tricky thing that is not yet fully understood even by those for whom anxiety is a significant part of reality. It is, however, the part that I am the most familiar with. A huge part of being able to cope is through understanding the trap that one can fall into by thinking that if one knew just a little bit more about what was coming or prepared just a little bit harder, the next crisis could be averted and one could finally find a foothold of control over one’s life. The outcome of this thought process can often end up be that a person tries too hard to control a situation by thinking they need to know everything that is going on at any time, by refusing to delegate responsibilities, or by trying to exert control over the actions and reactions of others. Games such as Big Book of Madness and Dead of Winter can give someone who has never experienced this some insight into those thought processes, and for those of us who do have anxiety that manifests in this way, these games can be a way to start to recognize those thought processes and develop productive coping strategies.