We’ve Got Issues: Exploring Mental Health Through Games

Michael Budram, Greg Kozma, and Will Jeffery, serious game graduate students in the Telecommunications, Information, and Media Studies department at MSU, have created a card game similar to Zonk about psychological conditions. We’ve Got Issues, a dice-based serious game, focuses on the challenges that those with these disorders may face. By turning a specific condition or disorder into a game mechanic, We’ve Got Issues puts players in a position to consider the issues presented, albeit in a lighthearted and carefree manner. Jeffery calls it a “Not-so-serious serious game,” which may serve as an introduction to some of these disorders and encourage discussion into exploring them.

I got a chance to play We’ve Got Issues with the developers, and the first thing I noticed among the players is familiarity with many of the disorders at hand. As the game started, we discussed the process of creating the cards, which, after several playtests, were rewritten and refined again and again. The developers were worried about the levels of seriousness which should be attached to the cards. In one such iteration of the game, Alzheimer’s was much more beneficial to the player, whereas dyslexia was not. Of course, due to the lighthearted nature of the game, it was important to the developers that many of the issues included positive traits that could move the player forward. For example, in the dyslexia card, there’s a chance to double your turn score but also a chance to “lose your turn out of frustration.” Often, the developers found themselves wondering how to turn these disorders into a card game where negative effects were present, but also positive ones.

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Example cards from We’ve Got Issues

We’ve Got Issues underscores the idea that everyone struggles with challenges every day. Designing the game was one way to explore and understand the issue, and playing the game is a great way to promote curiosity about the issue as players try to understand how the game mechanics actually relate to disorders. This was a piece of conversation that came up often during our playthrough—discussing how the cards match up to real-life.

It’s never easy to take a heavy subject and convert it into a fun serious game. And while Jeffery and others may consider We’ve Got Issues to be not-so-serious, Budram believes it’s “a well-executed serious game,” because the players have fun as they think and play through these issues. Of course, when one sets off on tackling such sensitive topics, problems and conflicts inevitably arise. There have been countless games that aim to educate on a topic but instead receive of flurry of negative critique. In the field of serious games, many of these topics walk a fine line between pleasing and provoking an audience, and some crossover is always expected. But making waves can have its benefits as well, providing more coverage for a topic that many are cognitively dissonant about or providing a chance for developers to review material and determine where they want to take their product.

As far as We’ve Got Issues goes, the developers hope to perform several more playtests and iterations before submitting to the printers so that everyone can enjoy the game sometime soon. They’re also looking to submit to the Meaningful Play Conference coming up next year in October. However, if you’re interested in printing the cards and playing with your friends, the cards are available for no charge on Jeffery’s website.

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