video games

Life Is Strange: Learning to make better decisions through gaming


If you’ve been following me on Twitter, mostly on very early mornings on the weekends, you know that I’ve been playing Life Is Strange. I learned about the game back when I was in Afghanistan, a time when the prospect of being an 18 year old female hipster in the Pacific Northwest seemed very, very appealing. I caught up with the game and recently finished Episode 4 (The Dark Room) and one Episode remains. The game is beautiful and highly emotional, and I’ve been convincing as many of my friends as possible to play it, mostly to make them as miserable and depressed as me.

I’m currently working on a longer post about one of the game’s seconday characters, David Madsen, who’s a combat veteran. I did a short post a couple of months ago for Front Towards Gamer and the one I’m working on is an expansion on that.

I actually have quite a few posts in the works that will be coming out related to the game, mostly because the game tackles a lot of important issues (suicide, youth, emotions).

In the mean time, I wanted to comment on one of the interesting features of the game, or rather, one of the interesting side effects that I think the game has. I recently wrote about how through playing narrative-based games, like Life Is Strange or even Mass Effect, the game forces the player to grapple with difficult dillemmas, and that these in-game interactions have actually made me think about the way that I engage with real people. Following up on that idea, what I’ve started to really think about is the way that the game allows you to sit back and really think about what decision you are going to make before actually making it, and the inherent training value this has.

I remember when I was playing Mass Effect, there were times that I would get to a critical decision point and actually get up, pour myself some more coffee, and then sit there, face twisted in thought as I contemplated how my decisions might affect the fate of the galaxy.

In Life Is Strange, the stakes are usually smaller, but often feel more personal (and seemingly real). I’ve been playing the game – as I do most non-linear games – the way that feels right for me. That is, I’m making the decisions as I think I would make them. There are times where I feel like the game is pushing me in one direction over another, like in the scene where I choose whether to make fun of Victoria or comfort her. Seeing those options, I knew that comforting her would be the right thing to do, but I also didn’t think I would actually do that in person. Victoria, to this point, has been a total bitch and this was my opportunity to get revenge. I wasn’t going to pass it up.

Mass Effect was much more deliberate in this regard. Decisions colored red pushed you towards being a “renegage” whereas decisions colored “blue” pushed you towards being a “paragon.”

The point is, these in-game conversations, and more importantly, the agency the player has over choice, potentially has real value outside of the game.

Months ago I reviewed a game for iOS that works in this regard (Together Strong), using narrative-based interaction to help prepare veterans and their family members to recognize and effectively communicate with veterans or military members who may need help. Although I thought it was good as a training simulation, I wasn’t that interested in “playing” it again because it never really felt like a game. It felt like effective training. I really ought to revisit it.

I think there is real value in this kind of computer based interaction. Game design has advanced to a point where these types of games can be used to help better prepare people – especially veterans – for facing the tough conversations all of us will undoubteldy find ourselves in. Suicide, depression, alcoholism, anger, PTSD – if you’re in the military or around veterans, these are things you are going to see. And as much lip service as we give to making people “aware” of these issues, very little of substance is done in terms of actually arming ourselves with the tools to help someone.

We like to play games. Instead of another class on recognizing signs of suicide, maybe we simulate a conversation with someone who is really struggling in a context that is comfortable for us – games.


video games

Together Strong: Tackling PTSD and Suicide through the Mass Effect conversation wheel


Honestly, when I first heard of the Together Strong App, it looked terribly boring and similar to the myriad of mandatory computer based trainings soldiers are forced to endure to meet mandatory training requirements. Still, given it sits at the intersection of the military world and gaming, I thought I should give it a fair shot before dismissing it.

I downloaded the App for iPhone (free) and launched it. It asked for some basic information; zip code, service status (active, veteran, etc.), gender (to include trans and other) and age. Then it launched into an introduction of the character you would be role playing as, a well-adjusted Marine who transitioned into the civilian world, not without his own transition issues though. After a brief introduction – which seemed a little long, actually, for the ADHD-induced norm of smartphone gaming – I began a conversation with ‘Hector,’ a veteran who is normally outgoing that suddenly stopped returning phone calls and text messages.

For a game whose chief action is conversation, it’s actually done pretty well. The characters speak in a manner you’d expect from veterans – often a little rough around the edges without being cheesy. You are given options on what to say next based on previous choices. Thankfully, there is no clear “right” answer, and unlike a lot of the similar mandatory training games soldiers go through, you are not fenced in to take a certain path. There are multiple “good” answers and often the best answers are the ones that don’t really accomplish anything but simply moves the conversation along, gets the characters talking.

The conversation system here is very similar to the conversation wheel used in Mass Effect – it’s never exactly clear what the reaction of the characters are going to be when you choose to say something – which makes the conversation actually exciting. There was a point in which I called out Hector for trying to solve his problems with booze, to which he reacted aggressively and defensively with me. Unlike Mass Effect, however, there are no quick-button triggers to go Renegade on poor Hector.

In this first conversation, it becomes apparent that Hector has been thinking of killing himself and you are presented with the option of asking the hard question: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” Army leaders who have participated in ASIST suicide intervention training will know that that question is one the most important steps in intervening in a potential suicide. Hector admits that he has, and then you are presented with more options on what to do next.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the conversation – it’s worth exploring on your own. As a “player” you are awarded with stars throughout the conversation if you manage to steer it the right way. I’m not sure if it’s possible to “lose” in a conversation – I only went through it once and managed to get all five stars.

The dialogue, for its part, seems pretty realistic. It’s not sugar coated or overly emotional. It sounds like two veterans talking, curses and all.

The first conversation, including setup and introduction took me about 20 minutes to get through. I actually felt pretty engaged while playing, but admittedly, this isn’t something I’d play on a subway train to work or for “fun” to blow off steam. It felt akin to learning a skill, something I was doing to better myself at handling these types of conversations, which I’ve faced in real life many times – often choosing the wrong things to say.

When the conversation ended, there was a dialogue box that asked me to check it if I’d like to be reminded in a week to do the next conversation. I thought that was a nice touch, because now I don’t feel forced to sit and continue more conversations, but would like to explore it more at a later time. When I get the reminder, I’ll do it.

The App is joint project between the NY/NJ Veterans Affairs Health Network and Kognito. There’s a bunch of research behind the software and the methodology which says its effective. You can read more about that here. Important to note is that the App is free until December 31, 2014, at which time it’s unclear how much it will cost (just download it now).

Obviously, this App isn’t going to appeal to everyone. There are lots of folks that will immediately be turned off to it because no matter how much lip service it gets, there is still a stigma attached to seeking care for mental health. However, if you’re an Army leader, I urge you to at least download the App. Let it sit on your phone and when you get a quiet moment and nothing is going on, open it up and give it a few minutes of your time. That’s what I did and I was surprisingly impressed. You might even gain a valuable skill or two on handling these situations in the future, which you are sure to encounter.