Games for Mental Health, Part 4 Life is a Mug of Oatmeal: The Average Everyday adventures of Samantha Browne


David Seelow, Ph.D©

          Anxiety, like depression, represents a quite common emotional problem that afflicts people of all ages, genders, races, and ethnicities. It often goes untreated Also, as with depression, there is an immense difference between everyday anxiety that virtually everyone faces from time to time and the crippling anxiety that afflicts someone with an anxiety disorder. For instance, an introverted or shy person might fear going to a party, attending a social event, or giving a public speech. That is normal anticipatory anxiety. What if I do not know anyone at the party? What if I freeze? What if I forget the words of my speech? What if no one speaks to me and so on are quite typical fear based scenarios we rehearse in our head. A person with an anxiety disorder will frequently not even get to the point of facing these irrational fears.  A former girlfriend of mine, educated, and outgoing suffered from such an anxiety disorder and, at times, was not able to leave the house for weeks to retrieve the mail. This kind of anxiety requires more attention, more public awareness, and more treatment.

          The small mobile gameThe Average Everyday adventures of Samantha Browne (2016) from Lemonsucker Games addresses anxiety disorders in a serious, but very engaging non-threatening fashion. Many game reviewers refer to the game as a visual novel, but unless you are a very avid gamer, that classification is a misnomer. The game plays out in around than 15 minutes, so novel does not come close to categorizing the game’s purpose which is more like Flash Fiction or a vignette.  The game can more properly be considered a short interactive fiction driven by images and animation more than text. The player’s choices are limited, but they make a difference in the narrative’s direction and the reading of the game’s hunger meter.

          Andrea Ayres (2020) discussed her desire to design a game where every decision register a slight failure as a strategy to capture the no-win situation of social anxiety. For Samantha Browne that activity is making a mug of oatmeal in the dorm room’s common kitchen area. For most students not even something to think about, but for a person suffering from social anxiety such and everyday task can be torturous. Samantha is hungry, but her social anxiety has isolated her in her dorm room for six hours. So, at 10:30 in the evening, hoping no one will be in the kitchen, she decides to make the trip down the hall to make a mug of oatmeal.

Screen Shot of Samantha’s Dorm Room

          Game play consists of reading text at the bottom of the screen and making decisions in the role of Samantha by clicking on one of two or three choices provided to the player in the center of the screen. Decisions are small, but heavy because you are hungry, and you need to eat! At the same time, the last think you want as someone with social anxiety is to draw attention to yourself, so even the game’s diegetic sound, such as a of a microwave clock ticking down, (“The microwave is so freaking loud,” Samantha thinks) ,beautifully designed by Adrianna Krikl, makes your heart pound in fear!

          Reimena Yee’s excellent comic book style art by both engages the player in a colorful adventure while denoting Samantha’s terror. When she opens her dorm room door, the art captures Samantha’s immediate anxiety by showing the hallway is an out of cous perspective representing Samantha’s disorientation in an almost Hitchcockian fashion.

Screen Shot of the hallway leading to the common kitchen area, Samantha’s destination.

          Each decision is measured on an in-game hunger meter that indicates the degree of stress each decision entails. If ineffective decisions are made, they will result in Samantha’s anxiety increasing significantly and, soon enough, a Game Over-type screen. The hunger meter only increases or moves toward higher anxiety levels. It does not lessen until Samantha successfully eats her oatmeal and ends the hunger. In a review of the game for Rock Paper Shotgun, John Walker effectively captures how social anxiety amplifies these moments of ordinary anxiety until they become terrorizing. The fear is irrational, but that is why it’s a paralyzing disorder.

                   You know that moment when you’re about to jump off the top diving board? Or begin an absail? Or tell the guy or girl that you fancy them? That moment when you realize you’re actually going to do it, and your stomach turns, your chest  tightens? Imagine someone pressed ‘pause’ on that moment, and you were stuck there for hours, for days. A moment awful intensity that’s meant to last a couple of seconds somehow not going away, a primitive invasion of fight-or-flight mechanisms at a time when there’s nothing to fight, nor anything rational from which to fly.

          You can read the game as a version of the hero’s journey in a minor key. Samantha leavers the security of home (her dorm room), crosses the threshold (hallway), engages the ordeal or fights the dragon of fear (the kitchen) and return home with the prize (a warm mug of oatmeal). The kitchen ordeal is quite engaging. Samantha fears someone will be in the kitchen and her nightmare is confirmed as she opens the door and spots two girls talking at the table. Next, she negotiates a simple electric tea kettle. Such a simple task as figuring out how to “work” an electric kettle (you simply fill with water and heat) particularly hit me as amusing and anxiety provoking. My sophomore year in college I strayed in the dorms over Thanksgiving and my mother sent me an electric kettle to make coffee with. I could not figure out how it made coffee. My befuddlement over the simplest of task remains a point of humor decades later. However, the point of the incident shows how anything new can push one’s anxiety level higher. Finally, the using the loud microwave in front of an audience you just know is talking about you!

          Like all interactive fictions, the game has multiple possible endings depending on a player’s choices. In one, Samantha burns her hands on the mug and drops it. The mug shatters, spilling oatmeal everywhere and drawing unwanted attention. My first play through ended with Samantha forgetting her dorm room key, being locked out, slumped on the floor in despair. I can imagine myself doing both careless actions, but without suffering the humiliation Samantha feels. Of course, Samantha sometimes does successfully make the oatmeal and return to her room with no hiccups, and a warm satisfied stomach. A hard won late night snack.

Application

          As a “serious” casual game, “Samantha Browne” is ideal for all college students to play. It raises awareness of debilitating social anxiety and thus benefits professors, coaches, advisors, and others who work will students throughout their academic career. It is also a perfect game for online learning modules in distance or blended courses, which benefit from short bursts of instructional material. For students who face more situational or occasional anxiety the game’s short duration allows it to act as a springboard for talking about healthy ways to cope with anxiety (either in person or as an online discussion forum).Test anxiety, anxiety before a big game, anxiety over a campus social event or the current anxiety swirling around Covid-19 are all examples of situations where faculty, advisors, and counselors, peer or professional, can help students make smart choices and cope successfully with their anxiety. Failure to negotiate anxiety can cause students to make impulsive, ill advised decisions like going to a crowded party and not wearing a mask during a public health crisis.

          I especially recommend this game for a college freshman orientation or first year experience event. Every college student will become anxious multiple times over their course of study, so bringing this issue to the forefront at the beginning of their post-secondary career makes perfect sense. Most of us are not like Samantha Browne, but we all have some Samantha Browne in us.

Works Cited

Couture, Joel. “Every Decision is Wrong: Social Anxiety and The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne,” Indie Games Plus,19 April 2016. Retrieved from

https://indiegamesplus.com/2016/04/every_decision_is_wrong_social, 6/02/2020.

The Average Everyday adventures of Samantha Browne. Lemonsucker Games, 2016. Video game. Andrea Ayers Deet, Designer.

Walker, John. “Wot I Think: The Average Everyday adventures Of Samantha Browne,” Rock Paper Shotgun, 20 April 2016, retrieved from  https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2016/04/20/the-average-everyday-adventures-of-samantha-browne-review/, 6/02/2020.

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