violet elder

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it's all done! (6/11)

The game is done and published! I have made a LOT of changes this week.

Here are some things I did... I added much more interactivity to the text-based screens, extending the walk-cycle animations, fixing a sprite glitch on level 3, and adding customized and trigger-specific comfort messages when you hold down C as you approach a specific trigger (that way the "comfort" mechanic also acts as specific advice, telling my players that this comfort message has actually helped me in the past with this specific trigger!). I'm also changing the way hide and comfort work a little, based on the feedback I received about some temporal confusion re: when the mechanics are relevant. In the final version of the game, you'll press c as you pass by triggers to comfort yourself, and you can press h anytime, once per level, to regain some health and remove yourself from the situation. I extended the length of each level, made an animated background for each text-based section, changed text-based section (formatting, font, etc). Re: the interactivity on the text-based screens: there are a few little call-outs and there is music that plays if you happen to hover your mouse over one part of the screen - I won't be explicitly saying that the text-based screens feature interactivity, for the sake of player sense of discovery when they find out that there is interactivity there. I made some more animations to add on top of the main illustrated backgrounds of the text-based sections, so that the visuals are more tied into the story being told!

You can play the game here

This is my last devlog as a technical part of the project, but I'll be writing another later this week, once I've had some time to process and reflect, just for myself.

It's wild to think that the project is done. I graduate in like 5 days.

Thank you,

Violet

final playtests! (6/4)

I've spent this last week putting all the animated assets into the game, finishing up that last level and the epilogue, and then playtesting! Because it's almost finals week, I had some trouble findng people who were willing and able to playtest the game, but I was able to playtest the game with four different people, one of whom playtested the game in the last round. I'm going to try to playtest the game twice more in the next day and a half, while I work on implementing the suggestions I've already received.

sneezing man sneezing man sneezing man sneezing man

A lot of the feedback I got was about how to make the controls clearer in the more "gamey" levels. Improved UI, visual feedback of injury, and positioning of assets will both help give players some room to figure out what's going on! I also got some valuable feedback by asking players how the game made them feel, and listening to their reactions as they played through it. During one playtest, the player said "good" and "bad" in response to what she was reading during the text-based sections of the game. Although said partially as a joke in most cases, it was very helpful to get this kind of microfeedback as she moved through the game!

I'd like to add some more frames to the walkcycles, lengthen the levels some so that there's more breathing room between triggers, and perhaps make the beginning and middle text-based sections more visually interesting.

The epilogue, as seen above, features an animation of me at my computer with a blue box to the right of me, displaying the text-based part of the game. I got two different reactions to this animation from two of my playtesters. One said that the block where the text was displayed felt disconnected from the animation, and the other assumed that what was displayed on the block was what I was typing at the computer. The latter interpretation was, I think, my intent, though I did originally consider the two parts of the epilogue screen to be separate, but the first playtester impression made me wonder if it would be a good idea to make the blue box appear more like a desktop or messenger interface, with me typing into a word doc or responding to messages. Perhaps the words could be displayed one at a time, as if they're being typed out quickly?

Okay! One week left to work on the game! I'm excited to finish it up and get it out there, but I've also really enjoyed working on it, even when I've felt unsatisfied with it. I'm happy with the illustrations and animations, if nothing else.

Love,

Violet

animating everything (5/28)

I've spent most of this last week animating pretty much every part of the game. Well, specifically and more accurately, I've been animating all the triggers, and also animating a final screen over which I'll be placing the text-based epilogue. Here are some gifs!

sneezing man musical notes in a speech bubble

Changing the music from lyrics to notes was a decision made based on playtest feedback! The playtester noted that having the lyrics there made them feel like they should actually read them, that the content of the lyrics was important information. I also applied this comment to the speech bubble below, highlighting only the words important to me (it used to contain a full sentence).

speech bubble example of the epilogue screen

Next steps are to actually put these animations into the game, and playtest it!

Love,

Violet

maybe a solution (5/21)

So, I've thought about it. I think I'm going to try this:

After the fourth and final level of the escort mission, there will be an animation of me sitting in my room, maybe at my desk, facing away from the viewer, or maybe on my best, facing them but not looking at them, just working on my computer. There will be a little screen element over the animation, and there will be a short text-based story where I'll talk about not being satisfied with the game, and school, and other things I've been thinking about recently, both clearly related to the game and not. I think including an epilogue of sorts to the end of the game, where I'm not trying to make it be anything it's not, and it can just be me talking without necessarily having a point, will make the game feel more like it's mine. Maybe part of why it feels inauthentic is that I'm feeling a need to make it a certain way because it's a school project? And I have other things to say that I think are worth saying, or at least will help me to say, that won't otherwise fit into the game.

The game already has a text-based intro and middle, and, while this one will feel a little different, I think it's fine for the epilogue or author's notes to stand out as almost separate, but related, to the main game.

Maybe there will be some interaction. Maybe you can click on items in the room and read a little about them.

I feel better about this as an ending to the game, and I think a discussion of producing work and not being fully satisfied with it would be good, in general. The game will be about trauma, triggers, and trying to figure out the best way to talk about those things (or, more specifically, the way to talk about them that feels best to you).

On a more personal note, I'll be graduating in a little less than a month. I think I'm kind of trying not to think about it? I'm not scared, just sad. I get nostalgic for things long before they end a lot of the time.

Also, I've spent the last couple weeks listening to different AJJ albums/songs on repeat, and that sounds like it would maybe be saying a lot about my mental health, and maybe it does, but I'm not sure.

Love,

Violet

playtests and dissatisfaction (5/14)

I conducted more playtests this week, and I got a lot of valuable feedback, but what I'd like to talk about is this: I feel really dissatisfied with the project as it currently stands. I'm not sure what exactly about it I'm not satisfied with, or what I can do to fix it. It just feels like an inauthentic representation of myself/my experiences, like I'm trying to make the game (and myself, since the game is autobiographical) be something it's/I'm not.

I think I liked the game as a concept more than I like it as a game. As a game, it feels cheap and cheesy, like there's little to it beyond the concept: an escort mission where you're escorting yourself.

I'm not really sure where to go from here, but I'll spend the week trying to come up with ways to make the game feel better.

Love,

Violet

slowing down (5/7)

As mentioned at the end of my last dev log, I've realized I didn't really leave myself enough time to fully build up my prototypes and reall conduct thorough playtests, so I'm readjusting my timeline for the game. This last week, I was able to get the prototype to a much more finished state, adding in some more thorough instruction and, I guess, world-building at the start, as well as finishing way more of the illustrations for the game and figuring out how Unity's sprite and sprite animation stuff works (I've done this stuff with GameMaker Studio, but Unity isn't as intuitive, in my opinion, so it took me a while, and I'm still working out some kinks!).

one of the walk cycles one of the backgrounds

Here's a gif of one of the walk cycles as it currently exists (gif made with Photoshop - as I said, still working out some animation kinks, but it's almost there), and also one of the new backgrounds, based on the coffee shop from my hometown!

Love,

Violet

research and re-evaluating (4/30)

The Undergraduate Research Conference was this last week, and it was a great experience! Even though only a handful of people came to talk to me and check out my poster, those who did come by said some really interesting things, and the hour passed by really quickly!

I had originally planned to both finish the full prototype and also conduct another playtest of the game this last week - which happened to have been the busiest work week of the year for me! I've been working on the full prototype, but it's still not to the level of completion that it needs to be, so I have not yet conducted the next playtest. I'll be completing the prototype and hopefully playtesting it this week, instead. I have been able to get more illustrations done, however! See below for some frames of a walk-cycle.

illustration of figure standing still figure begins to walk figure midwalk figure midwalk illustration of figure standing still

In my research of self-compassion, I've primarily been directed towards papers by or featuring Kristin Neff. The paper disucsses how self-compassion may be a healthier alternative to self-esteem, because it calls for the open acknowledgement of one's short-comings, while self-esteem often features the bolstering of "one's self-concept" for protection (i). While self-compassion is an internal process rooted in mindfulness that allows for kindness even in the face of failure, self-esteem often results in the development of a self-concept based on perceived excellence, meaning that failure undermines this self-concept; it is not sustainable, but is instead based on perceived ideal performance. One paper by Neff discusses the applications of self-compassion within the context of academic failure, and describes two studies that suggested that self-compassion "appears to help students focus on mastering tasks at hand rather than worrying about performance evaluations, to retain confidence in their competence as learners, and to foster intrinsic motivation," in addidtion to appearing to lower anxiety levels and increase likelihood of students adopting adaptive coping strategies (i).

Another paper featuring Neff discussed self-compassion during adolescence, describing how a "continual process of self-evaluation and social comparison occurs as teens attempt to establish their identity and place in the social hierarchy" (ii). In this study, among teens and young adults, "self-compassion was a significant predictor of mental health" (ii). Individuals with "more self-compassion reported less depression and anxiety as well as greater feelings of social connectedness" (ii).

Okay, that's enough research for right now. One thing I'm realizing is that I need to readjust the timeline of the project some, so that I have more time for playtests and for addressing things that come up in the playtests.

Love,

Violet

  1. Neff, Kristin D, et al. “Self-Compassion, Achievement Goals, and Coping with Academic Failure.” Self and Identity, vol. 4, no. 3, 2005, pp. 263–287., doi:10.1080/13576500444000317.
  2. Neff, Kristin D., and Pittman McGehee. “Self-Compassion and Psychological Resilience Among Adolescents and Young Adults.” Self and Identity, vol. 9, no. 3, 2010, pp. 225–240., doi:10.1080/15298860902979307.

playtesting and prototyping (4/23)

I did my first playtest of "Escort Yourself Out" this last week! The prototype I was playtesting with was very basic, so I was worried at first that I wouldn't get much out of it, but it ended up being a very helpful step!

instruction screen, level one prologue, and the first shot of level one

Some of the most helpful things I learned were as follows: I should explain who I am/who the child is, I need to include more instruction on what you're actually supposed to do (the ones I provided were too vague!), I should explain what the health bars represent (energy? emotional well-being?), different animations for each of the three actions (protect, care, and hide) would help explain the differences between them, and I need to add some details to the backgrounds to make the settings more obvious. My playtester also suggested I allow players to click on the triggers to see an explanation of why that thing is triggering to me. While I do think there is something to be said for dislaying many triggers and not explaining them (because some times something triggering to you seems totally banal to someone else, and that can make dealing with said triggers more complicated), it was still an interesting concept, and I am considering including a couple of explanations as "easter eggs" in the game.

the two characters, passing by the triggers

I talked a little about my eating disorder and little victories in my last post. I just want to say that, in the last few days, I've had even more victories, including some pretty significant ones. That's not to say everything is "totally fine" now, but I want to celebrate my victories when I have them.

This upcoming week: continued prototyping, and UC Davis' Undergraduate Research Conference, where I'll be presenting on the project at large, and "In My Friend Carrie's Car," in particular.

Next devlog: a research review, and an update on my next prototype and continued illustrations!

Love,

Violet

(PS: this week is KDVS' Spring Fundraiser! If you didn't know, I'm KDVS' Design Director this year. I've been with the station since the end of my freshman year, and this is likely the last fundraiser I'll ever to with KDVS. I'll be on air from 1-2:30 on Friday, playing covers of "Wonderwall" and probably getting a little bit cheesy and sentimental. I made a premium for my show this year, and I'm also laying out a special edition of our zine, KDViationS!)

illustrating myself and points v. my eating disorder (4/16)

I've been working on the illustrations for "Escort Yourself Out." I think I have enough done now to begin playtesting it, which is exciting, but I'll be continuing to work on and change the illustrations as I go. For now, I'm experimenting with outline-y backgrounds and filled-in trigger items and characters, just to make it very clear what's a trigger and what's just a part of the background. This has also required me to take some pictures of myself from an angle that my eating disorder has always made difficult for me to look at: profile.

Main character, all pink and blue and green and yellow Escort character, also pink and blue and green and yellow Escort character, older version, pink and yellow and blue

(above: main character, 12-year-old character, 21-year-old character)

In my last post, I mentioned that I wanted to include a level that featured me as an adult, rather than me as a child. The photo I took of myself for that one was especially difficult for me to look at while I illustrated it because of the way my eating disorder was trying to twist what I was seeing. The way I managed to keep working on it and feel okay while doing so was to think about it like a direct and tangible fight with my eating disorder, a victory I should be proud of, and to think that maybe somebody else with an eating disorder and a body like mine will play my game and feel comfort in seeing a figure they can relate to. This sort of thing often helps me with my eating disorder, though that's not to say it's at all an easy mindset to maintain. The outfit "main character me" is wearing is one that it took me weeks to get up the nerve to wear - one I never would have worn, not just a couple years ago, but not ever before now - because of how visible a certain part of my stomach is in it. Wearing that outfit for the first time was a tangible victory over my eating disorder, and illustrating it is a way for me to celebrate/remember that victory, and is its own fight to win, too!

Bedroom setting, all outline-y

(above, bedroom setting; below abstract "thought spiral" trigger)

A 'thought spiral' trigger, illustrated as a green blob with text in it

(Sidenote, recently it's helped me to refer to my stomach as my "tummy." The word "tummy" used to make me feel bad because it felt childish, but now invoking that feeling can sometimes help me be kinder to it.)

Now that I have enough illustrations done to make the prototype of the game make sense, it's time to start some initial playtests!

Love,

Violet

prototyping "Escort Yourself Out"

So far, I've mostly been working on getting some basic controls down for this game! I'm using Unity again, and I've been prototyping the game with some basic Unity primitives as stand-ins for the figures, objects, and backgrounds that will be featured in the final piece.

So, as mentioned in my last post, the idea of this game is that you're looking back kindly on your childhood self, who may have experienced childhood traumas. In my experience, extending self-compassion to a version of yourself that feels distant (for example, your childhood self) is a useful early step, but it doesn't do much in the way of helping you to extend the same compassion to yourself in the present. Because of that, I think one level will change a bit from the game's standard, so that you're guiding yourself (well, me) from, say, last week through an everyday situation, instead of a child. I think that asking the player to extend the same care and compassion to first a 12-year-old and then, immediately after, to a 20-something who looks exactly like the player character but is maybe wearing sweatpants and a dirty t-shirt could help to dispell the impression that 12-year-old me only deserved compassion because she was 12. She deserved compassion because she was a person! Current me therefore deserves the same amount of compassion in navigating potentially triggering situations!

On the note of "adding levels" to the game, I've been thinking that the game will feature 4 levels total: 3 with the 12-year-old, one with the 20-something. The locations will be something that looks kind of like the UC Davis Coffee House, a grocery store, a street in downtown Davis, and, I think, my bedroom (this would be the 20-something level!). The three public areas will feature primarily tangible triggers: a person, a thing, maybe a song playing from a nearby speaker. The private space (my room) will, I think, be more about taking care to avoid or navigate intrusive thoughts that might trigger anxiety-ridden spirals, so those triggering objects that the player must pass by will, perhaps, look more like thought bubbles floating in the air than everyday items.

okay, so, show us something!

Sure, get ready for some gifs!

animated gif showing some rectangles moving through a space. as the rectangles pass by other rectangles, their health meters decrease

Okay. What's happening here? As aforementioned, I'm using some Unity primitive shapes for the prototype right now. In the above gif, you're seeing the player character (present day me), with the escorted subject (12-year-old me) in tow, walking past some other block-y figures. Upon passing those figures, the player character and escorted subject both "take damage," and the health bars in the upper left get smaller.

this time, as they pass by, the player holds down h to hide, and the screen changes for a moment, while the player is hidden

In this one, I'm showing one of the controls: namely, "Hide." When the player passes by a triggering thing, they can press P, H, or C, or they can pass by without pressing anything. If they don't press anything, both parties (me and little me) take damage. If they proceed in this manner, they cannot make it through the level without running out of health. If they press P, they "Protect" the escorted subject, and the player character takes all the damage. If they press C, they "Care" for the escorted subject by holding their hand, and the two are both damaged, but less than if they had not pressed anything. If they press H, they "Hide," and both characters simply leave the area momentarily. In this prototype, hiding is represented by the screen briefly turning blue. Players can only do this once per level, though. In the gif above, notice how the circle next to the health bar, representing how many "Hide" tokens remain during a given level, disappears.

If the player character or the escorted subject run out of health before passing by all the triggers and completing the level, they simply restart that level. Since each one will likely be rather short, this shouldn't be too much of an inconvenience while the player is stil learning how best to operate the game.

what next?

Finish the illustrations enough that I have a prototype that communicates something of the feeling I hope to convey with the game, and then start playtesting it!

anything else?

Spring quarter has just begun at Davis, and it's already a very busy one for me! But it's also my last quarter here. A couple weeks ago, during the winter, I said to a friend of mine that, a couple years ago, I was putting all my effort into school. You know that quote, "Don't half-ass two things; whole-ass one thing?" I think it's from Parks & Rec. Well, I was whole-assing school and, I guess, no-assing being happy, and now I feel like I'm half-assing school and also half-assing being happy. My friend got mad at me for implying that I should sacrifice being happy for the sake of maybe doing marginally better in school. I don't have a lot to add to the anecdote. It's just something I'm trying to remember during this last quarter of my undergraduate career. I love working on my design projects, but I also need to take care of myself, and taking care of myself means doing things that make me happy.

Love,

Violet

self-compassion and past trauma

I'm working on my next game! In doing initial research and trying out a bunch of different keywords, I eventually found the phrase I've been looking for to describe pretty much my whole project: self-compassion! Kristin Neff defines self compassion as having three components: "(a) self-kindness versus self-judgement, (b) a sense of common humanity versus isolation, and (c) mindfulness versus overidentification," wherein "self-kindness refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with oneself rather than being harshly critical or judgemental," "common humanity involves recognizing that all humans are imperfect, fail, and make mistakes," and "mindfulness. . .involves being aware of one's present moment experience in a clear and balanced manner," as opposed to ruminating on one's mistakes or imperfections (i). Neff defines mindfulness in contrast to overidentification, which she defines elsewhere (in a paper cowritten with Christopher Germer) as being a type of rumination in which we begin to define ourselves by our failures or negative feelings (in their example: "Not only did I fail, 'I am a failure.'") (ii). This next game focuses on the application of self-compassion as a technique in relation to past/childhood trauma, but self-compassion is a theme relevant to a number of my goals with this project!

so what's this next game about, then?

It's going to be an escort-mission-style 2D game in which the figure you're escorting is you as a child! You'll be avoiding triggering objects in your path, protecting both yourself and your child-self as you attempt to make your way through a number of everyday environments. There will also be a narrative component in the form of captions, in which I will talk about my own experiences and issues of self-judgement and self-blame, as well as how I now attempt to apply self-compassion to the process of processing past traumas.

anything else to say?

Not really, no! I'm continuing to do research, and I hope to have most of the illustrations for the game done soon! I'm working on making these devlogs shorter, when I can. It's intimidating to have to write a whole bunch of stuff in one go! I want to post more often, and have each post be a bit shorter as a result!

what about stuff unrelated to the project?

Yes! I posted a game I started in the fall and recently revisited to make the gameplay a bit better. You can download it here! Also, someone livestreamed it, which is exciting!

It's final projects week at Davis, so I have a lot of work to get through! I'm trying to get better at continuing to take care of myself when things are busy. It can be hard, but I'm working on it! Hope all is well with you.

Love,

Violet

References

  1. Neff, Kristin D. “The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself.” Human Development, vol. 52, no. 4, 2009, pp. 211–214., doi:10.1159/000215071.
  2. Neff, Kristin D., and Christopher Germer. “Self-Compassion and psychological well-Being.” PsycEXTRA Dataset, Sept. 2017, doi:10.1037/e633942013-240.

game one wrap-up

First things first, I found some more really interesting research about the potential benefits of journaling! Psychologist James Pennebaker theorized in 1985 that “the effort if takes to hold back our thoughts and feelings serves as a stressor on our bodies,” and that acknowledging these thoughts can relieve stress and reduce the “negative impact on our bodies” (i). One UCLA study discussed the repeated practice of writing about traumatic experiences as being comparable to exposure therapy, a technique used to treat OCD and PTSD, among other disorders, by desensitizing negative responses to upsetting stimuli through repeated (controlled) exposure (ii). The study analyzed the effectiveness of five factors of expressive writing that can positively impact overall wellbeing, such as self-affirmation and narrative formation (ii). Given "In My Friend Carrie’s Car"'s function as a timeline, the concept of narrative formation is especially useful in considering the game. According to the study, “traumatic memories tend to be disorganized compared to other memories,” and narrative formation can address this by allowing an experience to be “summarized, stored, and assimilated into memory, thereby reducing distress associated with the event” (ii).

let's talk about the process!

I began working on this game by writing the script, participating in my own reflective mindfulness practice, prioritizing the description of tangible, specific moments or events to represent whole periods of time. In this way, I was able to create a narrative that could represent periods with ambiguous beginning and ending points, and therefore could form a timeline for myself that would aid me in processing periods of time that may bleed into each other or be difficult to put more tangible limits or dates to.

When I finished the first draft of the script, I conducted two aural playtests, reading the anecdotes aloud and asking listeners if they wanted to, for example, return to Carrie’s car, or continue along a particular train of thought. I gathered informal feedback from these early playtests, considered suggested edits to the script, and began coding the mechanisms that would allow the script to be translated to the computer screen.

Using Unity, I made a basic functional prototype of the game, and used this prototype to conduct the next round of playtests, this time with five different players. I also prototyped a number of potential displays for the final version of the game. Given the personal nature of the content of the game, I wanted to ensure that at least two of my players were relative strangers. This priority was based on the assumption that players who knew me might respond more strongly to the game than those who did not, a concern also voiced during several of the playtests with people I was already familiar with. During this second round of playtests, I asked players about their emotional responses to the game, noted the gameplay choices they made, and presented them with the potential displays, asking for feedback on readability and differences in their emotional response from one potential display to the next.

In response to this second round of playtests, I made some changes to the script, considered alternate organizations of the narrative, and decided to work with the more minimal of the displays I presented to my players. The decision to work with a simple interface was largely influenced by one playtest, in which the player noted that, because the content of the game was at times difficult, they found themselves skipping lines, looking for distractions, and trying to “get out of” reading the text, despite an overall desire to continue reading. My original minimal design featured handwritten copy for the sake of communicating personal, hand-touched, human-made content, but, considering the need for readability, I began testing out different fonts, eventually settling on a monotype font. Given the connection of this kind of typeface to typewriters, and the position typewriters hold as being more manual and human-touched than purely digital composition programs, but more standardized and readable than handwritten text, a monotype font seemed a way to create personal but readable minimal displays.

The playtest that most influenced my display decision was conducted with a good friend, and the reported difficulty they had reading some parts of the story came, they said, as a result of the empathy and sympathy they felt for me. They also reported feeling a need to read everything, every anecdote, not coming from me, but rather originating internally. They also noted a feeling of bravery when they chose to continue reading, describing their agency of choice as a player, and validating my decision to present the narrative as an interactive piece. This decision was also validated by the multiple players who reported that the process of manually moving the story forward with their choices created a more experiential game/narrative environment. I also learned from my playtests that the game takes most players about 15-20 minutes to play, which is coincidentally approximately the amount of time it takes to drive from Davis to the Woodland Home Depot, as is occurring in the outer frame of the game’s frame story.

The final step of my development process was the addition of audio. To create a more immersive environment of being “in my friend Carrie’s car,” I spliced together audio clips I recorded from the passenger seat of my car while driving around Davis, towards Woodland. Following this, I published the game to itch.io, where it is available for free download to Mac and Windows systems.

now what?

Now, I'm working on my next game! I'll be posting more about that in the coming days, discussing initial research and some level design concepts. It's going to be a very different kind of game than "In My Friend Carrie's Car," and I'm excited to start coding it!

Until then, have a good day and I'll talk to you soon! And if you want to share any thoughts with me, please don't hesitate to send me an email at violetelderdesign@gmail.com!

Love,

Violet

References

  1. Swink, Steven. “Writing Tips That Can Reduce Symptoms.” National Alliance on Mental Illness, 16 Feb. 2018.
  2. Niles, Andrea N., et al. “Writing content predicts benefit from written expressive disclosure: Evidence for repeated exposure and self-Affirmation.” Cognition and Emotion, vol. 30, no. 2, 2016, pp. 258–274., doi:10.1080/02699931.2014.995598.

third devlog, first game: In My Friend Carrie's Car

Haven't read my first post? This one might not make too much sense to you! If you wanna read the first one, click here!

My first game for this project is done! If you want to play it, it's free to download here.

Content warnings for the game: eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, intrusive thoughts, depression, reference to sex via discussion of birth control.

What is it?

"In My Friend Carrie's Car" is an autobiographical text-based game with a frame-story-style narrative. It functions as a journal and a timeline, focusing on a handful of events, routines, and changes that have been major parts of my life over the last 4+ years, during my time as a student at UC Davis. The game jumps from year-to-yaer, time-period-to-time-period, if the player chooses to leave "my friend Carrie's car." If they want, they can just stay in the car for the whole game, or they can go, for example, to Edinburgh, to junior year, to last week, and even to the future (or, I suppose, the present) in the form of an epilogue that was written quite a while after I wrote the rest of the script.

Why did I want to make this game (for myself)?

I've heard, been told, read countless times that journaling and written reflection are mindfulness techniques that many people find helpful and calming. This has never really been the case for me. I've tried to keep journals and diaries a number of times, and my OCD has never really been into that concept. It doesn't like it when I write out a story, especially about a sensitive topic, without the discussion being exhaustive. If I don't capture every detail perfectly, it tells me that I will be misunderstood, or misrepresented by my own words. Sometimes it just tells me that "something" is wrong, without specifying what that something is. Given that context, it may surprise you to know that I understand and process my experiences by talking about them, but the difference is the mode. For some reason, speaking out loud, sometimes to someone else, often to myself, lets me make my thoughts more concrete than they are when they exist solely inside my head, without requiring me to get everything perfect. Maybe speaking aloud feels more concrete, but less permanent. Maybe I can't write or type as fast as I think, but I can talk that fast, so I'm still being exhaustive, but the process just doesn't take so long. Maybe speaking lets me ramble and feel out a thought as I go in a way that can be more difficult in writing. Regardless, many discussions of journaling and reflection focus on the act of writing, rather than speaking, referencing taking things slow, thinking as you go, describing the physical activity as calming and meditative, in addition to the content being written out. I'd like to be able to write without being so focused on getting the representation of myself "perfect," without getting caught up in being exhaustive in my descriptions. I've been working a lot in my art and design this year at being okay with the idea that, ultimately, I cannot control how my work will be interpreted. I can maybe try to give my "intended" interpretation a fighting chance through my design choices, but, ultimately, my work will not be viewed in a vacuum, and users/viewers/players will always view anything I make through the lenses of their own experiences.

Essentially, I made this game to serve as part mindfulness practice, part reflection on a notable period of my life that has held many big personal changes, and part exposure therapy, wherein I forced myself to write a non-exhaustive reflection on a number of years and be okay with it, accepting that this game will paint an incomplete picture of me and of the last few years of my life.

What about for other people?

One manifestation of my OCD is scrupulosity, which causes me to hold myself to unreasonable and very strictly-maintained standards (but, it's worth noting, not anyone else). This has, at various points, convinced me that I am a wholly bad person, worse than anyone else around me. Perhaps in part as a result of years of this kind of thinking, I have a difficult time feeling empathy for myself, validating my own experiences, and treating myself with kindness. I tell the people around me to take care of themselves while treating myself poorly. I don't think this is uncommon. I believe most people are kinder to others than they are to themselves.

As is referenced in the game, a few years ago, I was completely falling apart, and I was desperate for someone to talk to who would understand what was happening to me, who could relate to what I was feeling. I would scroll through posts on tumblr tagged with "OCD," and about half of them were neatly organized collections of items (we'll talk about that some other time), but the other half were posts, made my complete strangers, talking about the things I had been feeling my entire life, and had never once heard another person say. The first time I read one of those posts, I started crying pretty much immediately. Seeing my own experiences reflected back was incredibly validating. Hearing others talk about experiences I know so well has, I believe, helped me greatly. Now, years later, as I try to treat myself with more kindness, I recognize that it's much easier for me to extend empathy and understanding to other people, to believe their experiences and respect their needs, than it is for me to do these things for myself. Again, I don't think this is particularly uncommon. I think many people are socialized to downplay their own experiences and pain, to ignore their own needs. It's my hope that, if other people play this game (which essentially means reading through my - incomplete - journal), and recognize even an echo of their own experiences in mine, then they can extend whatever empathy they may feel for me to themselves, that they can apply any validation of my experiences as validation of their own.

Being able to look back at my experiences and acknowledge, "Hey, yeah, that sucked" has been an important step for me, a movement towards self-love and away from my self-deprecating self-doubt. Seeing my experiences reflected in the experiences of others was an important catalyst for this. Maybe someone else can see their experiences reflected in mine, and maybe it can be a catalyst for their own self-love, too.

Research and resources

This game is, as aforementioned, part journal. Most of what I knew about journaling as a beneficial mindfulness technique came from opinion pieces and anecdotal claims, which I think are valuable things to consider, but this is a project for a research university, so I started out looking for academic articles. Here's some of what I found!

In a quick look at "Journaling about stressful events: effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression," I learned that students asked to write about both thoughts and emotions tied to trauma or to stressors showed greater awareness of the benefits of such an event than did students who were asked to write only about the emotional impact of such an event (i). This suggests that analysis is an important part of journaling, when the subject being considered is an emotionally difficult one.

From "Expressive Writing: Connections to Physical and Mental Health," I learned that emotional upheaval kept secret was more likely to cause health problems than emotional upheaval openly discussed (ii). The article raises the question: "If keeping a powerful secret about an upsetting experience is unhealthy, can talking about it, or putting it into works in some way be beneficial?" (ii). The researchers, who prompted the participants in their study to journal according to certain prompts, also noted a willingness in their participants to disclose deeply personal information when given the opportunity to do so (ii). Perhaps most importantly, however, they noted that "the overwhelming majority [of participants reported] that the writing experience was valuable and meaningful in their lives," and that "writing about upsetting experiences, although painful in the days of writing, [produced] long-term improvements in mood and indicators of well-being" (ii).

I also looked to other autobiographical text-based games or games that used text in a really creative way to tell a personal story. I primarily looked to Anna Anthropy's "Dys4ia" (available here) and Nina Freeman's "Mangia" (available here). "Mangia" has a more classical text-based visual style, but also incorporates some really interesting somewhat abstract graphics on a few occasions, and features one screen that just repeats one phrase many times. It's a game Freeman made about being diagnosed with a chronic illness. "Dys4ia" is not exclusively text-based. It's more like a number of short vignettes or mini-games with short accompanying phrases. The imagery is at times abstract, and very brightly colored. The game describes the period of time leading up to Anthropy's decision to begin horomone replacement therapy. I think it's worth nothing in any discussion of "Dys4ia" that Anthropy has since said that she hates the game (iii). She made another game not long after called Empathy Game that was about the "farce of using a game as a substitute for education, as a way to claim allyship," in response to those who contacted her after playing "Dys4ia," believing their work as allies to be done and their understanding of her experiences to be complete, after 10-15 minutes of gameplay (iii). Anthropy has said that "Dys4ia" was not intended to be an empathy game, and was made for other trans and questioning gamers (iv). Psychologists who have been researching the potential of empathy games, like Dr. Douglas Gentile, have found some evidence that empathy games can indeed increase empathy in the player (iv). Gentile has also stated, however, that "Games help you understand something outside of your normal experience, but that's different from understanding someone else's experience," echoing Anthropy's statements about how allyship takes more than just a quick play-through of an emptahy game (iv). In one interview, Anthropy said, "If you've played a 10-minute game about being a transwoman, don't pat yourself on the back for feeling like you understand a marginalized experience" (iv). In discussing the people who contacted her, feeling her work had taught them all they needed to know about the experiences of transwomen, she references laziness and a lack of willingness to do the actual work of being an ally (iv).

Given Anthropy's points and the fact that I've discussed empathy in relation to my game(s), I'd like to clarify that I am specifically hoping that players who are also dealing with mental illnesses will play my games and then be more empathetic to *themselves*.

Continuing in my discussion of research, however, I recently had the opportunity to attend a talk given by game designer and author Aevee Bee, wherein she briefly mentioned the benefits of presenting players with specific characters for them to empathize with, as opposed to blank-slate characters for them to theoretically fully embody. I asked her some questions about the concept following the talk, given that my games frame me as the main character and my experiences as the main stories, and she referred me to some really interesting sources related to autobiographical work (in addition to further recommending the work of Anthropy and Freeman). The resources she directed me to apply to this entire project, rather than just this first game, and I'll be looking into and likely referring to them in the future, once I've had more of a chance to read them through!

This devlog is getting pretty long, so I'm gonna cut it off here. Before I go, though, I just want to say: I took actual steps towards prioritizing my wellbeing this week, and that's part of why this game took a little longer to complete than I anticipated. I was in a dangerous place, psychologically, so I tried to take things a little easier. I even skipped class, for the first time in my academic life! I was starting to get sick, I had a lot of work to do, we were just gonna have a work day, and I'm taking the class pass/no pass, but, still. I'm proud of myself! I'll say more about that in the next devlog, though. In a few days, I'll post a break-down of my process for this first game (including taking time off), the take-aways, and the next steps. For now, thank you for reading! I hope you have a great day. Take care of yourself.

Love,

Violet

References

  1. Ullrich, Philip M., and Susan K. Lutgendorf. “Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine, vol. 24, no. 3, 2002, pp. 244–250., doi:10.1207/s15324796abm2403_10.
  2. Pennebaker, James W., and Cindy K. Chung. “Expressive Writing: Connections to Physical and Mental Health.” Oxford Handbooks Online, 15 Mar. 2011, pp. 417–437., doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195342819.013.0018.
  3. Anthropy, Anna. “Empathy Game.” Auntie Pixelante, 2015.
  4. D'Anastasio, Cecilia. “Why Video Games Can't Teach You Empathy.” Motherboard, 15 May 2015.

devlog #1: who are you? what are you doing? why are you doing it?

This is the first real devlog of my 6-month-long project! If you read my last post, you already know a little about what the project is. Essentially, I’m going to be making interactive media (probably primarily in the form of experimental digital games) that reflects some aspect of my experience as a person who is mentally ill. I know from experience how powerful it can be to feel seen and understood, to see your own experiences reflected back in the experiences of others. I believe that media representation can be a tool with which to process your own experiences through an analysis or observation of the experiences of others.

I feel it is important to note right at the beginning that the games I will be making through this project are in no way meant to depict a universal experience of mental illness. The experiences being depicted are mine, and mine alone. Everyone’s experience of mental illness is different! There are, from time-to-time, however, some common elements recognizable within a number of unique experiences. If I make a game that rings true to three different parties, they might all have related to a different element of the game. That’s great! There might be a fourth party with the same disorders as me who saw nothing of themselves in my game, and that’s okay, too! I want to say it again, to make it really clear: the only experience of mental illness I am claiming to depict through my games is my own.

Ok! Now that that’s out of the way, here’s some information about me! I am a white, cis, straight, college-educated woman from California (by way of a number of other locations). I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, an eating disorder, misophonia, and depression. I was diagnosed with OCD when I was 6 or 7, and developed the other three mental illnesses later on. Right now, I go to therapy every week. I’ve spent most of my life not being professionally treated for my mental illnesses. There are a number of reasons for that, which I will not be getting into now. I believe I have a pretty good understanding of my mental illnesses, though I think this is something I’ll always be figuring out. I process my experiences by talking about them, either to myself or to others. This is a lot of pretty personal information! I feel a need to “prove myself” to you. I shouldn’t, but I do nonetheless. This is probably partially because of my OCD and partially because many mentally ill individuals (myself included) experience being doubted by those around them – and it sucks!

I think I’m ultimately making these games for two reasons:

  1. I think making them will help me. Mental illness can be incredibly isolating. In the last few years, I have found a lot of freedom in talking more openly about my mental health. I feel happier being a more authentic version of myself, and I am also more able to ask for help when I need it, because those around me already know a little bit about what I might need and why I might need it.
  2. There have been points where I have been just desperate to hear someone else talk about what I was experiencing in a way that rang true to me. Media representation of most mental illnesses is dismissive at best, and frequently spreads false and dangerous information. After years of hearing OCD only referred to jokingly in discussions of perfectionism and neatness, I came to dismiss and downplay my own experiences, and the lack of accurate and thorough information available to me meant that I spent years unaware that dozens (maybe even hundreds) of experiences that had caused me great distress were actually (at times common) manifestations of a disorder I’d been diagnosed with years before. Sharing my experiences of mental illness in detail is scary! But it’s something I care about. A culture that allows for the open, candid, and accurate discussion of mental illness is sorely needed, and I hope to do my part to help build that culture. And it’s worth noting: not everyone can share their experiences! For some people it’s triggering, for others it’s a professional or personal risk due to societal stigmas surrounding mental illness, and some people just don’t want to! And that’s fine! I am not at all saying that everyone should share their experiences, just that everyone should feel free to do so if they want, and should be safe in doing so! That is the kind of open culture that needs accurate representation to be developed. Now, again, my experiences are not indicative of every mentally ill individual’s. Everybody experiences things differently, and it’s important that a variety of experiences be represented in the media for a more accurate overall representation of mental illness to be developed! But I hope that some people are able to see something in my depictions of my experiences that rings true to them, and makes them feel seen and understood, and that my depictions of my experiences might be one part of a larger landscape of representations of experiences of mental illness that allows for greater understanding and compassion, and an eventual dismantling of mental illness stigma.

Thanks for continuing to read! Here’s some more stuff!

These devlogs, charting my progress and findings in the project, are probably not going to be written in particularly formal language. This project is about the communication of my experiences, and authenticity is a very important part of that task. I’m going to write and talk in a manner that feels true and authentic to me, and I believe that the way I will write and talk may be something others can connect to, along with the experiences I’ll be depicting in my games. I won’t be talking about a game today, though I am working on the first one of the project! Today is just for thoughts, feelings, and a more thorough introduction. Here’s what I expect a typical devlog to look like, though:

Recently, in therapy, I have been examining my relationship with validation. I have been working towards fostering a sense of internal validation, as opposed to relying on external validation. Now, internal validation is a tough thing to foster in the context of institutional education. I have caused myself great pain for the sake of external validation within institutional education over the years, but this is a project about my mental health. One of the goals of the project is to help myself through the creation of these interactive media pieces. I also hope that, by openly taking steps to put my needs first, I can encourage others to do the same. I am going to refer to myself and my needs throughout the project, and adjust things accordingly. I am not going to compromise my authenticity and my own needs! My needs and feelings are valid, even if traditional educational models do not value them! Again, this project is about my mental health. I am not going to sacrifice my wellbeing in order to meet institutional requirements that fetishize measurable productivity on a project about my mental health! As someone who has spent so many years bending over backwards to meet those kind of requirements, this is difficult and scary for me, but I have come to the conclusion that, ultimately, all that matters is that I am happy, so long as the things necessary for my happiness do not hurt others. This conclusion is a part of my experience as a mentally ill person, in part because being happy is something that requires conscious effort for me, but also because every experience I have is a part of my experience as a mentally ill person. Once again, I’m pre-emptively defending myself here, which kind of goes against my point about internal validation, but this is a work-in-progress (as is everything), and I am trying.

Thank you for reading! I hope you’re having a great day. Take care of yourself.

Love,

Violet

P.S., on that “all that matter is that I am happy, so long as I do not hurt others” note? That mentality is why my URL is violetelder.cool, instead of a .com or some other more traditional domain. It’s a silly thing that makes me laugh, and hurts no one, and that makes it worthwhile. Internal validation! I’m working on it.

introduction

I'm working on a two-quarter-long project through the UC Davis Design Department. Here's an introduction!

Mental Illness Through Interactive Digital Media

My experience with mental illness has largely been one of isolation and misunderstanding by friends and strangers alike – an experience that is, unfortunately, very common. I have learned firsthand how powerful it is to feel understood and seen in a culture that so frequently fails to understand or accurately represent mental illness. According to NAMI, mental illness affects 43.8 million – or 1 in 5 – American adults in a given year (i). NAMI also reports that, despite the availability of effective treatment, there are often delays of up to several decades between the onset of the symptoms of mental illness and the beginning of treatment (i). In its “StigmaFree” campaign, the organization discusses how stigma and societal misunderstanding harm populations experiencing mental illness by causing discrimination, and by creating a cultural environment in which individuals cannot speak about their experiences, and are frequently prevented from seeking medical help (ii). I hope to explore, through this project, how interactive digital media (games, animations, etc.) might help to foster an environment that encourages the open discussion of mental illness, free of judgement and negative social repercussions.

I will attempt to answer three questions:

  1. Can interactive media (video games, for example) convey a subset of the experience of mental illness?
  2. Can an experiential game of this sort help others with mental illnesses feel seen, affect the way they understand their own experiences, or aid in the creation of a supportive community or environment?
  3. Could the act of making deeply personal media of this sort and sharing it publicly serve as a kind of therapy, akin to music therapy?

I will address the questions above by creating a new interactive digital media piece approximately every two weeks that explores some experience or feeling associated with mental illness. Some pieces may take more time, some may take less. These pieces will call on my own experiences and feelings, and will therefore be personal in nature, but I believe work of this kind may be capable of communicating something to any number of people. Each piece will be accompanied by 1-2 development logs or process book entries detailing both technical elements of the production, and emotional thought behind the choices made in the process. Both the media pieces and the development log entries will be posted publicly online, with the hopes of allowing for communication between viewers/players, as well as for the potential creation of a kind of positive, understanding, and empathetic community.

I hope to post my first game for this project by February 4th!

References

  1. “Mental Health By The Numbers.” NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness, www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers.
  2. “StigmaFree Me.” NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness, www.nami.org/Get- Involved/Take-the-stigmafree-Pledge/StigmaFree-Me.