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SELF CONTROL
INTERACTIVE VIDEO GAME + PRINTED MEDIA
2018

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OVERVIEW

Self Control works to critically examine the ways in which we employ unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with various compounding vectors of mental illness. In the work, the player takes on the role of a small frog boy with various responsibilities and a collection of video games inspired by the late 1990s Gameboy Color era. The main character suffers from depression and anxiety and uses video games as a means for escapism to avoid the mounting stress piling up in their life, seeking out games to deal with their problems and emotional stresses. This is meant to express how the various ways we engage in escapism often do not meaningfully address the root cause of our stress, and simply brush our stressors aside until we return to them. However, when we do return to them, they have only grown larger and more frightening, causing us to seek out more and more distractions. An extremely vicious cycle can emerge when compounded with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, which act as debilitating and immobilizing factors. Anxiety and depression, in my experience, tend to both raise the stakes of the responsibility to such an extreme degree that the task becomes nerve racking, and inhibit the motivation to attempt the task at all, preferring to do nothing but lay in bed and worry. The game works more as an educational tool than something specifically designed to be fun, subverting many video game tropes in the process, as a means to teach the player more about how depression and anxiety can affect someone’s life and create a more empathic response to those suffering.

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DESIGNING FOR (NON) MOBILITY

In creating this game, I implemented several design choices consistent with merritt k's writing on queer mechanics, specifically "coding fluidity and uncertainty" and "unconventional movement". In order to better represent the immobility stemming out of ADHD and associated executive dysfunction, I had to look beyond traditional, often capitalist or colonialist, frames of movement. A character with these conditions does not move through their space as freely and as violently as a typical AAA game protagonist a la Nathan Drake or Doom Guy. In this game, there is nothing to collect, no one to kill, and no place to go. The frog remains remains largely static throughout the game, frustratingly trapped in their room, with the player uncertain as to how to help them and what will happen next.  This lack of control is further compounded by the fact that the player is presented a full layout of buttons controlled by touch, matching those of a Nintendo Gameboy,  which when pressed often create more problems, do the opposite of what was expected, or nothing at all. This mirrors the effects of executive dysfunction, as  person with executive dysfunction knows exactly what they want to do and what they should do, but simply cannot tell their body to get it done without substantial difficulty or threat.

DEVELOPING LORE AND COZINESS THROUGH GAMEPLAY AND PRINTED MATERIAL

I designed this game off of the feelings I felt when playing my Gameboy Color and subsequent Gameboy Advance SP in my bed- feeling happy I was playing a game, upset at myself for not doing what I should be doing, yet still glad to be in the safety and coziness of my room. As such, I created the game to mirror Gameboy Color style graphics, and created printed box art and a manual to match the Gameboy branding and style. The 16-bit graphics allow for a chunky, colorful style, and the setting of the bedroom complete the soft, cozy aesthetic. However, in keeping with my theme of subverting game mechanic expectations, I've flipped the structure called the "cozy sandwich" (explained by Project Horseshoe), where the player moves from a cozy space to a space of high conflict due to some "scarcity", be it monetary or otherwise, back to the cozy space to collect themselves and spend their earnings. I instead posit that the cozy space is one of much more severe conflict. For example, upon ending one of their gaming sessions, the frog might become increasingly anxious, debilitated, and afraid while in the supposedly cozy place because of what they haven't accomplished via their distracting activity. This works to further the case of the vicious cycle created by converging vectors of escapism and executive dysfunction, as the person may use their easily accessible coping mechanism (like video games) to deal with their situation, only to return to back to an even worse situation because time has elapsed and nothing has been accomplished. 

Further, I created the manual to attempt to give further insight into the frog's character and surrounding world lore, and presented it with cute graphics and bright colors. However, the language in the text presents a rather sad and bleak situation for the frog, as they are estranged from many of their friends and family, and have many mental illnesses preventing self-betterment and relationship building. This works to provide more lore and backstory to the game (which focuses more on the frog's specific situation of being trapped in bed), as well as explanations of specific mental health issue, so the player might have a complete picture into the frog's world, and be able to have a greater empathic response due to their increased understanding. The goal of the piece, then, is to provide both a positive, utopic outlook that someone suffering from these may find support, and that those surrouding them are aware of those issues and ready to support them. 

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ON DISPLAY

The game was shown at the Stamps Senior Show Exchanges: How We Got Here in the Work Commons Gallery on University of Michigan's North Campus. The installation includes a small setup of a bedroom corner, complete with a chair, lamp, nightstand, and android tablet to play the game in. This small installation is to allow the viewer to feel more immersed in the game by both being in a similar atmosphere as the frog, with the chair allowing the user to relax and play the game in it's entirety while not worrying about being on display, being watched, or feeling vulnerable. This atmosphere allows them to better engage with topics relating to immobility and mental health, while also providing the coziness of friendship, empathy, and support.

The work will be on display until April 28th.

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