The Game Theory
If you’re unfamiliar with gaming terminology, this is a great place to start. The reason this analogy works so well is because there are explicit parallels that can be drawn between Mental Health and gaming mechanics.
Even at the most basic level, games, especially role playing games (RPGs), have a real-to-life component to them. In role playing games, you create a character and then play as that character. This assumption of character puts you into the context and mindset of that character, and so when we draw parallels between the character and you, we can say that what happens to your character in game, is like what happens to you in real life. From there, we have a blank canvas to create a world around you. This world building, therefore, can create a really special context to talk about more difficult real-life topics, like mental health, in a way that is understandable and approachable. That’s what makes this analogy so special.
Lets take a moment to define some of the gaming terms I use in the theory, and why they are so important.
World building is the term writers use to describe the process of creating the world in which their characters live. I have borrowed extensively from the world building that is inherent to RPGs, in particular the usage of classes, status bars, status effects, buffs, and debuffs.
A Class is a job or profession that is commonly used to differentiate abilities of different characters. This is only important because different classes use different resources to perform tasks and abilities. This analogy uses Mana, and so our characters are of the spell-caster class, hence why the characters look like wizards!
A Status Bar is a visual bar representing the amount of resources that your character has. There are usually two: one that denotes how much health you have and one that denotes how much power you have to perform abilities.
HP, short for Hit Points or Health Points, is denoted by a status bar and is unique from the Mana or resource bar. Every character has one, regardless of what class you play. The illustrations keep the HP bar mostly because it makes the graphic instantly recognizable. Without it, the Mana bar would look mostly like a line and it loses its context and meaning.
That said, mental illnesses can have an impact on your physical health, too! Psychological symptoms can manifest as physical symptoms, like migraines or stomach aches, and some mental illnesses trick the brain into thinking that self-harm is the answer. While this is a bit heavy to “comic-ize” it is something that this analogy can explain within the context of gaming terminology.
Mana is an in-game resource that is denoted by its own status bar. It’s used by caster classes such as Mages, Warlocks, and Healers. They use this resource to power and cast their spells and abilities. In the comic, I illustrated a popular mage spell that can summon and cast fireballs.
There are other resources that are used in RPGs but most of them carry additional meaning in the real world. For example, Warriors use Rage, Rogues use Energy, and Hunters use Focus. While these are all valid resources in game, their meaning becomes muddled once it leaves the context of the game. That is what makes casting classes and Mana so interesting and makes this analogy work as well as it does. Mana doesn’t have a meaning outside of game and therefore is the strongest resource candidate to be used for this theory. Using Mana allows us to bypass existing meaning and potential baggage and create something pretty special.
Status effects are any condition that hinders or modifies a characters abilities. These are often temporary modifications to the character’s abilities and resolve after a certain time, or are removed by another ability.
A debuff is a status effect that negatively impacts a character in game. It’s a pretty broad definition, and therefore provides quite a bit of freedom to use it as we need to for the analogy to work within the context of mental health and illnesses. Debuffs vary from game to game, but the same principal applies: when you want to hinder a player or make an encounter more difficult, you can introduce debuffs to increase the challenge.
Using the broad definition of a debuff, we can create our own negative statuses to illustrate the cost of a mental illness. Since mental illness can affect every person differently, the debuff system is perfect for illustrating how one person might have one debuff, and the next has eight. In a fight in game, you could have any number of debuffs applied to a character at a given time and the same holds true here.
A buff works similar to a debuff, but instead of a negative status effect, it’s a positive one. While the original theory doesn’t utilize the buff system, I thought it prudent to add it here because it fits.
Think of it this way, if a mental illness can apply debuffs at any time, we can apply buffs to counteract it. We can also illustrate the application of buffs through activities that are beneficial to the character; and in our case, beneficial to combating mental health issues!
I’m pretty sure there are other analogies that explain this…
You’d be right. There are a bunch of other amazing analogies and metaphors that try to illustrate and visualize the impact of invisible conditions. The Spoon Theory is an amazing depiction of the cost of picking and choosing activities when you have a chronic illness. It visually shows what it means to spend spoons, the anxiety of when you are low on spoons, and the inevitability of having to borrow against future spoons for something important.
This Mana Theory isn’t meant to replace the Spoon Theory, or any of the other visualizations and explanations for describing the cost of an invisible illness. It’s meant to add to the greater collection; bring a wider understanding and reach an even bigger audience. The more people we can reach and speak to with a common language, the better we can be equipped to defeat the stigma and inconsistencies of mental and invisible illnesses.
What is that Impossible Task stuff? Why is it a random task?
Great question! An impossible task is a task that is suddenly impossible for you to complete. It’s rarely due to difficulty and it’s likely something you’ve done before and without trouble. The reason it is a random task is because the impossibility could be attached to anything. It could have been any one of the tasks on your list, and this time it just so happens that…going to the bank or making a phone call has become impossible for you to do. Maybe tomorrow the task is sorting through your pile of junk mail or filling a prescription.
This Twitter thread by Molly does a fantastic job at explaining the Impossible Task, what it might look like, how it can change on you, and the impact it can have. The Impossible Task is one of those things that if you’ve experience it you “get it” and if you haven’t, it’s an entirely bewildering concept, so I hope this thread is helpful in understanding what it is.
As Molly points out, the Impossible Task is another way to explain a breakdown in executive function. It’s one facet that can show up when mental illness is interfering with your executive function.
Executive Function is described as the mental skills we have to plan, focus, organize, remember, and execute. They are the skills we use to time manage, remember to do something, focus, and more. When executive function breaks down (execute dysfunction), it affects our ability to go to work or school, maintain relationships, and act independently. The Impossible Task is an example of where executive function is not, well, functioning.
Behind The Theory: Why I came up with it.
I have always struggled to explain how anxiety, and to a lesser degree depression, can affect my daily life. When things are VeryBad™ explaining away my inability to handle every day tasks was easy: I could directly point to the source of my anxiety and stressors and say “this is hard for me to handle and so other things are falling through the cracks”. When a huge and obvious target is missing, well, explaining becomes much, much harder.
There have been more than a few times where I would be deep in the woods and having trouble operating at what might be considered my “normal.” It sometimes became a source of frustration for my partner and I: why was a thing that was absolutely no issue last week suddenly a monumental chore now? And because I couldn’t answer the “why” in a satisfactory way, it would compound my anxiety and I’d shut down further.
One time I did try to explain what was going on with me using The Spoon Theory, but the glazed look and pointed questions made the theory fall apart reasonably quickly for garnering understanding. As I sat there reflecting on how I might communicate in a way that my partner could understand, I had the thought of using terminology from World of Warcraft, an online RPG. In that first explanation, I only used the mana bar to describe what was going on: I was operating with a reduced capacity mana bar and I only had so much to pick and choose what I could accomplish in a day. It clicked.
We now have a common language to talk about mental illness. It also gave me a way to provide a wellness update on my mental well being without needing to try to explain the why. It was just understood.
I sincerely hope this analogy helps people talk more freely about the cost of a mental illness and the effect it has on every day life. You can read the full theory here.
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