Tim Simon
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I'm looking for games that explore mental illness, or otherwise have strong, introspective themes or mechanics to them. For a long time I've been wondering about invoking emotion in players through board games - can I make a game that deliberately angers players? Makes them sad? What about making players experience something similar to the emptiness or numbness associated with depression? What elements within the game would invoke these emotions - theme? Mechanical devices? Artwork?

There's a variety of video games that explore themes like depression, anxiety or trauma. A few more recent games that come to mind are Town of Light and Depression Quest. Video games have a range of thematic and mechanical opportunities to invoke emotion, to place a player in circumstances outside of their experiences, and to explore a wider range of mentalities than normal life allows (FPS games allow players to explore bloodthirsty characters, sim-games explore town planning, etc - mentalities possibility outside of a players 'real' mindset). Combinations of theme and decision-making seem common - music, artistic tone [dark, moody scenery, for example] - and decisions or narrative that invokes various emotion.


Are there board games that explore mental illnesses, particularly depression, through theme, narrative, or mechanics?

Thus far, the games I have experienced that sort of touch on these themes:

- Arkham [or Eldritch] Horror: The characters have 'madness', but this is more of a countdown until Something Bad Happens. The theme is strong, but the game overall is a race against time to do something, without invoking the types of emotions I'm interested in, in the players.
- TIME Stories: The narrative sense allows the players to experience a story in which mental issues can be discussed. This doesn't so much place the _players_ within this frame of mind, though.
- Robinson Crusoe: pitting the player against overwhelming odds, this game brings out the feeling of hope, combined with a lot of soul-crushing hopelessness and frustration. Again, though, it doesn't really explore the themes I'm looking for, and the main mechanic used is 'drama' - so much hangs on everything you do [fail to gather? die. Rain on the weather dice? die] - which works to create a constant state of tension, but I'm not sure that's exactly what I'm looking for.


Are there other games, or even just parts of games - themes, or mechanics - that are, or could be, used by players to explore the shoes of somebody with issues like depression or anxiety?
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Gesine Stanienda
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Several Role Playing Games do this to varying degrees:

- Call of Cthulhu.
- Changeling the Lost (also abuse).
- Don't rest your head

I have yet to come across a board game that does so.
However, when I killed Jonesy in LE Alien, I felt very, very sad.

Pathfinder the Adventure Card game might do it as well: You have your characters, build them over time (we're talking months of real time, mind you) and then they die, never to return.
Kingdom Death Monster might do it too.

In general: With the exception of LE Alien, all these are long-term games.
With Eldritch Horror, I have not yet felt that close an attachment to my characters, but them dying was sometimes harsh...


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George Stewart
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The Ravens of Thri Sahashri I found explored the phsyci alot and some of the cards and idea behind it was pretty dark however the mechanic of laying cards over others to solve a puzzle to block out shattered memorys etc was very interesting.

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Dixit.
Nothing screams "mental illness" in the game but all the connections between the images on the cards and the psyche of the players is almost "Jungian". Every game you play (especially the first few times with a new group of players) feels like a session of group psycho analysis, in a good way though, nothing too deep or embarassing...
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Kallisto wrote:
Several Role Playing Games do this to varying degrees:

- Call of Cthulhu.
- Changeling the Lost (also abuse).
- Don't rest your head
Imho, the RPG that evokes emotions best is Wraith: The Oblivion. To quote the wikipedia article:
Quote:
The game of Wraith: The Oblivion sets the players as characters who have recently died and found themselves within a grim afterlife.
[...]
Wraiths draw their strengths from the passions that held them to the living world. In game-terms, each character possesses Fetters, representing an object, place or person which binds them to the world of the living, and Passions, representing an emotion that they have not resolved. Fetters allow a Wraith to remain close to the world of the living, while Passions allow them to gain emotional energy to sustain themselves. However, each Wraith also possesses a secondary personality called a Shadow. Their Shadow, often portrayed by another player, works to assert dominance over the character. The Shadow's motives are always self-destruction of the Wraith. With a mix of emotional fetters and the confrontational play style that the Shadow presents, games of Wraith: The Oblivion are often powerfully emotive.
Our group has found Wraith to be too intense for our tastes.
 
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From playing The Grizzled, one can feel a sense of fatigue & sadness, if you can put yourself in the situation where the soldiers underwent. It's a smart co-op gamr that is extremely hard, which mirrors the anxiety & pressure of the soldiers during that time i feel. Every game is a somber & serious setting, no laughter whatsoever
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Philip Mazzone
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The upcoming Lobotomy by TFG is along the lines of this theme, altho maybe not as deep as your looking for. Its a title Im certainly waiting for and looks really good.
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There was an RPG back in the 90's called "Psychosis: Ship of Fools". The subtitle might have referred to just the one campaign, I'm not sure. I owned it; never played it, mind you.

Your character moved through multiple layers of his own mind, and as a result changed depending on the "theme" of each psychotic state. You didn't have "stats" or "skills" in the traditional sense, because it's all in your head. Rather, the game used Tarot cards, with each suit representing an area of activity (cups were "emotions" for example), and the cards you had in your hand represented what your mind thought you could do at that moment. So at one point you might be the captain of a space ship with great physical traits, and then switch to a wolf as part of a pack, and later switch to another setting. You might go back to the space ship later with entirely new traits. Your goal, if I recall, was to move through the layers of your madness to reach reality.

I'm sure not all of this is entirely accurate; it's been around 20 years since I saw this game.
 
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Wesley Jones
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Bad Habit is a cooperative game that explores self-injury.
 
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Chris Knight
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Well, this is certainly an interesting question. I am curious to see where it leads.

My first thought is, no, it's not possible to recreate the experience. I guess playing chess against a grand master or monopoly against anyone would bring up feelings of hopelessness and wanting to just shut down, but I think that's not really helpful.

The old choose your own adventure books or Tales of the Arabian Nights certainly create an atmosphere that your choices do not matter.

I think the suggestion of Dixit (to which I would add Eat Poop You Cat and many party games really) is a good one. But requires creating the space to question the rationale behind people's choices.

As mentioned above, for the most part this issue comes up in board games (and pop culture at large) as "insanity" or "madness", which is, to say the least, unfortunate.
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Joe Grimes
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Possibly Android. (not Netrunner)

 
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The Looney Bin
 
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chearns
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spunXtain wrote:
Not funny.

______

On the constructive side:

This has long been an interest of mine. The idea that mechanics could put you in the shoes of someone who lives with a mental illness. And why not? Mental illness' and their associated defence mechanisms are a form of rule system.

However, I've never really seen a board game that tries to do it so far as I know.

From personal experience, I can say that Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation does a good job of evoking anxiety, but that may only be with people who actually already have anxiety. I'm not sure it would have any impact on people who don't. The reasons it does so is due to a combination of a few factors.

One, the pawns are hidden information. You don't know who each pawn is.

Two, you must engage in confrontation with unknown enemies.

Three, losing one of those pieces, and someone is almost guaranteed to lose a pawn during a confrontation is a big deal as there aren't that many pawns in the game.

Four, the game is relentlessly moving forward. You can't play cowardly, the game won't let you. It forces you into confrontation even though you'd rather not.

Five, the game is short. In less than fifteen turns, the game will be over and someone will have won. That means each decision feels critical.

Those factors combine to give a sense of dread during play. An anxiety over what happens next. Quite brilliant really.

However, the theme is that silly lord of the rings thing. Nothing to do with anxiety at all.

I imagine a game like Kolejka might feel somewhat like the pointlessness and hopelessness that many people with depression feel. But, I've never even played that one, so that is pure conjecture.

Certainly it's an area with rich potential for development.
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Chris Knight
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chearns wrote:
Those factors combine to give a sense of dread during play. An anxiety over what happens next. Quite brilliant really.

Hmmm. You have clearly thought about this more than I, but my inclination is to distinguish the thrilling "anxiety" you describe from clinical anxiety which can be debilitating.

Does the game make it feel like the floor has dropped away? Or that you can't breathe? Or that you are in this moment about to die unless you get away from it all?

Surely not.

But I think you are right that these feelings are related. I am thinking about playing Mr. X in Scotland Yard (or any other hidden movement game) and the feeling of anxiety is certainly visceral--my heart rate goes up, my palms get sweaty, and I do feel almost unhealthily worked up.

The idea of re-theming LOTR confrontation is pretty intriguing. The characters could simply be re-skinned as your mother, your boss, your ex-girlfriend/boyfriend, etc.
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chearns
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Gee Whiz wrote:
chearns wrote:
Those factors combine to give a sense of dread during play. An anxiety over what happens next. Quite brilliant really.

Hmmm. You have clearly thought about this more than I, but my inclination is to distinguish the thrilling "anxiety" you describe from clinical anxiety which can be debilitating.

Does the game make it feel like the floor has dropped away? Or that you can't breathe? Or that you are in this moment about to die unless you get away from it all?

Surely not.
I would not say it does any if those things. However, clinical anxiety is larger than panic attacks. I would associate what I was describing as more the debilitating feelings associated with Generalized Anxiety Disorder without panic attacks.

I do admit, mind, that for those without anxiety, the feelings of play during The Confrontation might be thrilling. Kind of like how hot baths can be very enjoyable for most people, but for people where difficulty breathing is a symptom of a panic attack, a hot bath can be rather unpleasant and difficult to partake in.

That is part of the problem with trying to get a sense of what someone else lives with. It's why wearing a blindfold to experience blindness doesn't work. Because you know that you'll be able to take off that blindfold soon and see. This makes the experience interesting, because you are freed from the knowledge that you'll have this for the rest of your life. Something people who actually live with blindness don't have.

So The Confrontation may seem thrilling to those who don't experience that dread in every aspect of their lives, from meeting people, to going to work,to driving the car, to doing the groceries, but that is because they know that when they stop playing the game, those feelings go away.
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Tim Simon
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There's a lot of interesting games mentioned here, which is exciting - thanks for the suggestions.


Quote:
My first thought is, no, it's not possible to recreate the experience. I guess playing chess against a grand master or monopoly against anyone would bring up feelings of hopelessness and wanting to just shut down, but I think that's not really helpful.

The old choose your own adventure books or Tales of the Arabian Nights certainly create an atmosphere that your choices do not matter.

I think the suggestion of Dixit (to which I would add Eat Poop You Cat and many party games really) is a good one. But requires creating the space to question the rationale behind people's choices.

As mentioned above, for the most part this issue comes up in board games (and pop culture at large) as "insanity" or "madness", which is, to say the least, unfortunate.

I have been thinking "around" this topic for a long time now. It's my current opinion that board games generally fall into a few "types". Most games are 'puzzle-like' - consider most Euros, or Chess, or Go - and this engages players on an intellectual level. Then there's 'competitive' - players working against "something". This can engage players on an emotional level - I want to win, I'm sad when I don't - and 'drama' plays a role here. For example, Robinson Crusoe is framed as "players vs the game", and the players emotions are triggered through the dramatic sense of "each die roll could be the end of the game; each card could kill a player".

These examples really don't trigger very 'deep' emotions, though - the games don't intentionally cause players to feel sad, or angry. Most of the 'deeper' emotions come from the social interaction. Mentioned above, Dixit is a game that really doesn't do much at all - unless you have a good group. While I think it's a good game, most of the emotional investment that players experience come from the sociality of the game, rather than the game itself.

Is this because board games, as a medium, lack some element that allows players to be immersed, to engage on an emotional level, and thus to explore deeper emotional ideas?


Quote:
Pathfinder the Adventure Card game might do it as well: You have your characters, build them over time (we're talking months of real time, mind you) and then they die, never to return.

That's a good point - Pathfinder The Adventure Card Game lies towards the role-play side of the spectrum, as does Arabian Nights. D&D or Pathfinder would allow for really deep player investment, and exploration of emotions, through the use of narrative and long-term player attachment to their characters. Those aren't really 'board games', though.



The games listed here are ones I'll look into - thank you very much for the suggestions and the discussion thus far!
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Jason Daly
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I haven't played it, but based on the theme, Tragedy Looper sounds like it might be of some interest. It deals with characters suffering and trying to prevent tragedies such as murders and suicides. I guess there's some time travel, too. Not having played it, I don't know how pasted-on the theme is, but I just thought I'd mention it.
 
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Lobotomy is a KS project that I don't think has been delivered yet.

You play as patients in a mental hospital. It's basically a dungeon crawl, but are the monsters real or delusions?
 
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Candace Mercer
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I do not know of, but have wondered about this, and games that deal with with pain. we have talked about this and the thought is we want to escape real life? so would we want to play something that was too real?

but dealing with a major illness involves strategy. I am not sure what mechanics would represent this...something about apportioning energy? pain? symptoms gotten and relieved?

as someone with chronic pain/disability it would take a certain sensitivity to get this right and respectful with regards to issues of ableism.
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Tim Simon
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candio wrote:
I do not know of, but have wondered about this, and games that deal with with pain. we have talked about this and the thought is we want to escape real life? so would we want to play something that was too real?

My feeling is that board games don't really encroach 'too real'. Considering other mediums (video games), it seems that people do enjoy experiencing things that are 'realer'.

Quote:
I am not sure what mechanics would represent this

I agree. I'm hoping that examining the suggestions here will maybe show some ways that existing games touch on this.

Quote:
as someone with chronic pain/disability it would take a certain sensitivity to get this right and respectful with regards to issues of ableism.

I've struggled with clinical depression for a number of years now, which is one of the reasons I'm interested in this - can I use a board game to help explain my struggles to somebody who tells me I can just "be happy"? I don't know what that would look like, and I certainly agree that there would need to be a level of sensitivity.
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Candace Mercer
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There re ways it could be a quest type game or deckbuilder...navigating the insurance system, staying in bed vs getting out of bed, penalties for overdoing it, obstacles people face like stigma or side effects from meds but also positives, and victories like making it your kids play or game...it just couldn't be done with humor? and it would most likely need to be designed by people who have had the situation to avoid getting it wrong...

one game I am interested in checking out is Freedom: The Underground Railroad which takes a painful subject, albeit one with hope [freedom] attached.

My best way to describe depression/chronic pain/fatigue is it's like walking in water, every move takes more effort and tires you out. There is just a heaviness. I hate being brightsided with the cheer up stuff. it is so negating of my experience. Not that I wallow, but sometimes I feel I am allowed to have self pity and I need it to be there without trying to make it better. I don't stay in that place for long, but it sucks having no one understand it.

I have heard of a video game that deals with a boy dying of cancer, and I like the idea of a game experience that would help people understand without proselytizing.
 
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A Penny for My Thoughts is a really interesting RPG. It's gmless and all of the players take on roles as mental patients at a hospital who have some ability to share collective memories. It's about facing traumatic memories from the past. I've often thought that this game could be adapted to work in real life therapeutic process. The subjects that are dealt with in the game could act as a fictional mask giving the players/patient the freedom to explore and deal with real life trauma that might be similar in theme. Very similar to Drama Therapy - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drama_therapy
 
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Kallisto wrote:
Pathfinder the Adventure Card game might do it as well: You have your characters, build them over time (we're talking months of real time, mind you) and then they die, never to return.
The only emotion PACG invoked in me was boredom. No, wait, also anger because I wasted money on it. zombie
 
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Dan Hughes
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I have often been very disappointed with the board gaming genre's treatment of the subject of mental illness. It often falls into very stereotyped cliche's which are invariably negative. Some games even feel it appropriate to poke fun at the mentally ill, particularly at people with schizophrenia and other illnesses with psychosis. This angers me very. Mental illness is hard enough to deal with as it is without people pointing and laughing.

I've actually sat out of some games because the theming was so obnoxious that I think I'd probably lose my job should someone find out I played it (I'm a mental health nurse).

The game "and then we held hands" deals with emotions in a mature way, although not particularly mental illness.

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