I had the pleasure of sitting down (digitally) with David Libby, designer of the solo card game Anxiety to talk about the game design and his personal struggle with anxiety. This is the first time I’ve done a written interview for The Thoughtful Gamer, so check it out and let me know what you think in the comments.
David: Good to connect with you!
M: Yeah thanks for taking the time to talk
D: Absolutely! I’m excited!
M: I was excited when I saw your reddit post and read your blog, as I’m also a Christian who loves board games and struggles with mental health problems. I could relate to a lot.
D: Yeah, I’m a pastor, and have been a Christian for most of my life. I’ve been playing games as long as I can remember. I fell down the designer board game rabbit hole about 10 years ago. My bookshelves are bowing trying to hold all the board games.
M: I’m to the point where I have to sneak games onto other bookshelves to hold them all. I really need to get another shelf!
D: HA! Nice.
M: Was Anxiety the first game design you’ve worked on?
D: No, I’ve done a few. When I was in seminary, we were tasked with doing a creative project relating to some aspect of the history of the Church. It hit me that you could make a cool board game about a lot of aspects of Church history. So I made a game about the tension in the 300s about whether Jesus was fully God or not. It really was a big issue. People were exiled…it was a mess.
So I made a board game about that. I didn’t ever try to sell it, because the market for it would probably be, like, two people.
I made a couple of other games. One is a satire about giant churches and celebrity pastors, and how a lot of them are after mostly money and book sales. It’s a drafting game called Empires, and it’s on the Game Crafter. I also have another game my wife and I designed called Halloween Candy that’s on DriveThruCards.
M: Have you shopped any of them around to publishers? Also, I’d totally be one of those two people getting excited about a theology game.
D: Ha! No, I haven’t really. I’ve only ever made the games to play with friends. That would be interesting, though. I think Halloween Candy especially could do pretty well. It’s a good, quick filler.
M: Honestly I think Anxiety has a lot of potential there, though according to your blog post about it you made it as a therapeutic exercise for yourself. Where did that idea come from?
D: Yeah, Anxiety was interesting. A bit of context: about a year and a half ago, I started having semi-regular situations in which my body would shut down from anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour and a half. This happened over and over, but I just assumed that it was stress. No amount of relaxation was making it stop, though. Over that time, I started worrying excessively, overanalyzing everything, and was unable to sleep. I would hyperventilate every so often, and early this year started having panic attacks.
It got to the point where, with my wife’s help, I realized that this wasn’t something I could just fix by myself. So I started going to therapy, and that’s been really, really helpful. I found out that this was anxiety, and that the effects that I was experiencing were totally normal.
But I wanted more of an outlet to express myself creatively beyond only the therapy. I had heard that some people painted or drew what their anxiety felt like, and that it had been helpful for them. I knew of someone who wrote songs about her mental health problems. I thought that sounded great, but beyond stick figures, I don’t draw. I don’t sing well. I do like to write, but I write so much for work that I didn’t really want that to be my outlet either.
Then, while I was playing Onirim (a solo game about escaping nightmares), I was taken with how the tension that you feel in the game mirrors the nightmare theme of the game. I thought maybe I could do something like that, where I captured the feeling of having anxiety, while also making a game that was enjoyable to play.
M: I feel like the initial impression people will get when they hear about a solo game called “Anxiety” is that it will be miserable to play because of the theme. But once you think about it, nearly all games have moments of tension and suspense, which are kind of in the same category of emotion as anxiousness. Did you find it pretty simple to chart the tension of flipping over cards from a deck to the theme of anxiousness?
D: It’s funny–one of my friends shared the blog post, and another person commented: “Great, just what I want, I game that makes me feel anxiety.” I like games that put real-world tension into a game, though. There’s a game called “…and then we held hands” about a romantic relationship that’s on-the-rocks. We all know stories of people whose relationships have fallen apart, or we may have been those people ourselves, and that game expresses those feelings and the process of rebuilding. It’s like art–it makes us feel something. I think games do that really well.
So for Anxiety, I wanted to capture that feeling. It was actually really tough to find the central mechanism that would express the overwhelming nature of anxiety. I originally tried to have half of a deck filled with helpful cards, and half with cards that hurt the player. But it didn’t work all that well, and it really wasn’t fun.
I thought about what all of the best co-op games seem to have in common, and usually there are multiple things hurting the player at once. That’s where the idea of the multiple tracks came from.
The idea for face down cards, though, that was totally an accident. I was using black-backed card sleeves while prototyping, and I dropped a card which landed face-down. I thought that constantly escalating darkness would be a good way to express anxiety. So that’s how face down cards in three tracks came about. It wasn’t quick, it wasn’t easy, and some of it came together by accident.
That’s how a lot of art works, though, isn’t it?
M: Absolutely! And I love when someone tries to do something different and more challenging with an artform. I haven’t played “…and then we held hands”, but something along the same lines is Fog of Love, which tries to simulate the emotions of a relationship really well. With Anxiety you ended up having most of the cards cause harm on one of those tracks but also provide a way to escape the anxious symptoms in various ways. I know with my struggle with depression that can actually be the case: if I’m feeling really bad, that can create the impetus for me to remind myself of truths I need to remember. Was that something that happened naturally with the design when you went to multi-use cards, or were you specifically trying to emulate that real life situation?
D: Yeah, I mean, that definitely happens. My first day of therapy, my therapist pointed out that I would continually “move forward,” even when I started to panic. So if I started to panic, I’d get super concerned about it, and that would make me panic more, and then it would spiral into something huge. So for the first few sessions, we worked on diversion techniques (breathing, meditation, etc). So realizing I have those kinds of tools when things get overwhelming keeps me from spiraling. That was the idea behind the hurt/healing/hurt/healing flow of the game.
Similarly, there’s a card in particular in the game that allows you to raise the panic level and then discard everything from all of the tracks. That’s based on some of my experiences with panic attacks. Most of my panic attacks have caused me to fear having more attacks, which would tense me up even more. However, there were a couple of panic attack that, after I rode them out, I was okay for a couple of days. So when I designed that card I was specifically thinking of those two panic attacks.
M: I’m glad you mentioned that card, because I was genuinely surprised when I first encountered it. It was much more dramatic event than I’d seen in the deck, and in my first game I happened to draw it right when I needed it. Are there any other specific cards in the deck that are trying to model something you’ve experienced in particular like that?
D: Oh, sure. The “draw 4, use two for hurt and two for healing” card and the “draw 5 and reorder them” card are both inspired by some of the therapy techniques I’ve been given. I’m more mindful about what my mind and body are doing now, and can sometimes preemptively divert myself away from spiraling into panic. Those cards are kind of an illustration of that.
The game as a whole is actually meant to illustrate the fact that anxiety feels uncontrollable much of the time. There’s not really a lot of long-term strategy that you can do in the game. There are multiple choices and options much of the time, but you’re mostly reacting to what’s happening in the moment. That’s really what I was trying to capture overall.
Some of the cards, though, don’t really have a 1 to 1 comparison to something I’ve experienced. “Move 1 card to a different section” is just a game effect that I thought would be interesting.
M: That’s really cool! If you don’t mind, I’m curious about your experience as a pastor who struggles with anxiety. In the board gaming/nerd world there seem to be a good number of people, perhaps disproportionately, with mental health struggles, and I’ve found that there’s a lot of positive support in that community. The church I’ve found to be a bit hit and miss in that arena, often because of not a lot of knowledge about mental health, or what I would argue to be disastrous and wrong theological views. I remember people telling me that my depression must be the result of unrepentant sin. How has your experience been as a pastor who struggles with anxiety?
D: A lot more miss than hit, unfortunately. I was told by more than a couple of people that I must have something demonic in me–that my anxiety was actually a demon. I love these people, and I guess I get how they made that leap, but it’s wrong and unhelpful. The church should be a place where we can bring every part of ourselves! The whole point of church is that we’re a bunch of screw-ups that are in need of God to transform us, to bring restoration in our lives and with one another. So we should be able to come with our baggage and our issues and our weaknesses and our hurts and our struggles and our pains. But for some reason, mental health struggles are almost immediately minimized.
Shortly after I found out that my problems were actually due to my mental health struggles, I tried to tell people. As a pastor, I know SO MANY people who struggle with mental health and don’t feel safe to talk about it. I wanted to show them that it’s okay to talk about these things. However, after the “you have something demonic in you” talk, I found that I couldn’t talk about it either. It’s really painful to express something significant and painful going on in your life, and have people so quickly spiritualize it and move on.
I also heard someone else tell me that “talking about your own mental health struggles as a pastor could cost you your position.” I don’t know why Christians are so weird about mental health, man. The church should be the easiest place to bring these things up, and for some reason, we totally suck at it.
M: I know! It’s so fundamental to the gospel and so central to our identity as Christians to recognize that we’re flawed and broken, but there seems to be a very deep and historically-rooted skepticism of psychology as a discipline that a lot of Christians don’t know how to talk about mental health accurately. I think exploring what it’s like to struggle with mental health through a variety of media is a good way to create more empathy. There’s a lot of uncharted space in board gaming for that.
I feel like there’s something really obvious I should have asked you as someone who tries to interview competently, but I can’t think of it! Anything else you wanted to mention about the game or mental health, or, frankly, whatever? I’m used to podcasting and going completely off topic all the time. This on-topicness is throwing me off!
D: I just found it really awesome that a good number of people commented on Reddit/Facebook/Twitter or sent me private messages saying how glad they were to hear someone else talk openly about their mental health struggles, and how it freed them to be a little more honest with people about their own. Honestly, I did not expect that at all.
I’d just like people to realize how normal mental health problems are, and that getting help isn’t weakness. It’s actually really great!
If you can talk about it, talk about it. If you can’t, but you can find another outlet, do that. Whether it’s art, or writing, or songwriting, or making a game, find some way to express what’s going on. The only way to remove the stigma around mental health is for more of us to be open about it.
M: It’s awesome! The best. If you have mental health issues out there, dear readers, talk to an expert. Getting better is good. I’m glad to see you’ve had a good response to talking about it, David. Thanks again for answering my long-winded questions!
D: Thanks for talking with me. This was fun!