GeekGirlCon – an organization that seeks to empower women in technology and other areas – opens its 2016 convention on October 8. One of its featured speakers is a developer who wants to use games to shine a light on mental health.
When writer and game developer Andrea Ayres was in her early 20s, she started a love affair with diet pills and laxatives. No one in her family knew she was taking them. Nine years later, barely a month after her mother passed away in the summer of 2014, she experienced excruciating pain.
“I was like, I’ve done myself irreparable harm. … I have to go to the hospital because the pain was so bad. And it turned out my gall bladder was acting up. … But I had to come clean about having taken laxatives every day for the past nine years.”
The experience led Andrea to a therapist to address an eating disorder. It also made her realize, as she mourned her mother, that this was as good a time as any to start a project – something “that I didn’t think I could make for the challenge of it,” she told Techtonics.
“So she embarked on a “game development frenzy.” And the result was a 30-minute interactive game called “The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne.”
At the center of the game is a rather introverted college student who spends most of her time in her bedroom. So for her to actually leave the safety of the bedroom to fix oatmeal in the communal kitchen without being seen by other people is a terrifying decision.
“It’s a game that explores anxiety, social anxiety, and the judgements that we have for ourselves and other people and how all of these things kind of manifest and can create a whirlwind of chaos in our own minds.”
And it’s a game about learning how to “talk ourselves through … anxiety and being alone and being in a new place and all the fear and stuff associated with that too.”
The game also challenges players to control their food consumption “meter” to keep their character happy – something Ayres is familiar with.
“I never told anyone that it was specifically about my experience with an eating disorder,” confessed Ayres. “So for me the food consumption was a way to control my anxiety socially and a way for me to handle being around other people. And it just gave me an excuse to not be around other people because I didn’t want to have to explain to them like why I would or wouldn’t eat certain foods.”
Developing her first game about social anxiety and mental health helped Ayres, much like Samatha Browne, explore some of the issues that she still has “around food and people’s perceptions of me and my perceptions of other people and food rules and what the voice of an eating disorder is like and all these things that I’ve been trying to put down for a decade.”
It also helped her understand she can actually “exist and have worth outside of this extreme control of my food and my intake of food.”
“It became that thing that defined me. So I wanted to define myself in another way that was maybe a little more healthy.”
There are gamers who did not appreciate the game or missed the point of seemingly doing little more than fixing – or not fixing – oatmeal. But those familiar with the darkest recesses of anxiety understood and identified with Samantha Browne’s predicament.
“There are some people who are just like ‘I don’t get this,’ this is like navel-gazing – it feels like it’s super-narcissistic,” said Ayres. “… It’s a challenge for me to receive any feedback at all because I … take it all to heart. But it’s … another way for me to be like ‘am I happy with what I’ve done … even if it wasn’t something that everyone liked?'”
The free game was released in April – free because selling it was just “another barrier” that Andrea was not prepared to cross at the time. Now, she is writing the second installment in Samantha Browne’s episodic game while exploring mental health issues.
Gaming lets you do that, she added.
“What I like about video games is that we can explore facets of ourselves that we may not feel comfortable doing so in – say the real world,” she said. “You can kind of explore that shadow side of yourself or give yourself a character who is extremely aggressive. And I think that can be really empowering and also can help illuminate things that we didn’t know about ourselves.”
Games are not a cure for anxiety disorders and should not be seen as such. But Andrea believes “they are invaluable in exploring our own minds and thoughts and perceptions of the world and ourselves.”