There’s a moment in Season 2 of the Walking Dead when I have to choose which table I sit at for dinner. It’s seemingly one of the most innocuous decisions that the player has to make, but it was the one that took me the longest to complete.
I was first diagnosed with a social phobia only a couple of years ago. But at age 7, I had to go to therapy to be coaxed into using a telephone. In high school, I lashed out at peers and teachers in the middle of what I would later learn were panic attacks because sometimes people in crowded hallways would get too close. There were times I couldn’t leave my room because of the fear of social judgment, being around people who I constantly think are talking about me behind my back or criticizing me. The paranoia of just being around others and upsetting them prevented a lot of potential connections. Regardless of attempts to escape into media such as movies or videogames, I couldn’t really calm down.
In the Walking Dead, Clementine is being torn between two groups: The one that features a person from her past and the one that puts her with people she’s been sticking with recently. They haven’t been getting along for typical Walking Dead-esque reasons and Clementine has been stuck in the middle, making the player feel more like a child than any point in the game so far. Like having to choose between two parents, Clementine has to decide which group she will sit with at dinner. Considering this choice breaks up the drama of a cult-like leader stalking down the new batch of people and a zombie apocalypse, it’s kind of jarring. It’s also a bit triggering for my social anxiety—I had to turn the game off.
It’s often said that videogames let us escape into a virtual world, but there’s still a little panic that crosses over. My anxiety comes out when I have to make decisions and it seems that in video games, I have to confront it with mostly immediate consequences.
Even before I had to play as Clementine, I connected with her when I was inhabiting Lee in the first season of the Walking Dead. As Lee, you were tasked with either attempting to keep the peace in your dysfunctional group or taking one side over another and during the first couple of episodes, these were your priorities. When asked to hand out food rations, Lee has to choose who ends up having to starve. Walking around the camp, the player understands what the crackers mean: The difference between peace and conflict, loyalty and deception, life and death. In games such as The Walking Dead, one slip-up in a conversation can lead to the death of a character. In Season 2, actions Clementine takes at the ski lodge after the aforementioned dinner can result in the death of one or more characters by the end of the episode. There is always the option of restarting at an earlier save point if you end up not liking a choice you made, but you still end up feeling the weight of that wrong decision.
That’s scary to me. Seeing the immediate results of a decision is unlikely in the real world, where long introspection sessions are the norm just to decide if I should go out and be social or stay isolated. Saying the wrong thing in a conversation doesn’t automatically lead to the death of another person or, more realistically, them not engaging with you anymore. People are allowed to make their own decisions and don’t exist under the parameters of code. It’s more complicated here, but these aren’t life or death situations that I deal with. In many videogames, the drama is more pressing. Lee, in Season 1, has to make a choice whether to kill somebody or let his friend do it. Clementine has to choose who to save and who to leave as early as the first episode.
I am not prepared for what will happen since all I normally have to deal with is whether I should agree with a person or not on what we should do that day.
There’s the saying that is often repeated in stories about parallel universes: that any time you make a decision, you create a whole different universe. There’s the Butterfly Effect, which demonstrates how one seemingly insignificant occurrence can cause the end of the world. In games such as the ones Telltale creates, where decisions are the primary source of gameplay and the way the world operates. it really puts the stress on the decisions you make.
In a way, the same goes for the real world, where a single choice can cast off a chain of events that you weren’t expecting. We base many of our experiences on whether we made the “good” choice or the “bad” one, and videogames work in a similar fashion. To be held fully responsible for decisions that can result in the deaths of others is incredibly difficult to stand for most, and games such as the ones created by Telltale and Bioware, and others often draw upon this empathy to create connections between the player and the moving pixels on the screen. This can happen whether you have the opportunity to create an avatar in your likeness or not.
Whether you have that opportunity, there is a certain connection that is made between the player and the character. Nick Yee, a former research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center, said that “people unconsciously conform to the expectations of their avatar’s appearances,” in an article called “The Psychology of Video Game Avatars.” This is because of self-perception theory, where people make assumptions about themselves based in observed characteristics.
Let’s look at our main example. In the Walking Dead, when you play as Lee; he is at first established as a man with a calm demeanor despite tragic circumstances and takes on the responsibility of taking care of a young girl. In Season 2, where you play as Clementine, you are a young girl with more experience than the average adult. In both of these instances, I would make choices based on what I would do in these circumstances. What would I say if I was Lee, or what would I do if I was Clementine and if I had seen some of the shit she’s seen? If a character treats me poorly, why do I take it personally and react accordingly? When discussing games with others, why do we react emotionally when we made the “wrong” decision? Even though I did not physically insert myself into the game, I have to conform to my avatar, and then play as them. It’s never what I would specifically do, but what my character would do if I was them.
That’s when my anxiety skyrockets: because I made either the right or wrong decision coupled with regret over the consequences. These characters aren’t just characters in a game. They’re people that I am responsible for and that I have to interact with. I feel it when I have to wonder if Lee or Clementine are feeling some of the same stresses that I am or if they are just people without social phobias.
However, I observe a strange thing when playing: the eventual decrease in my anxiety after the initial discovery of it. One of the biggest fears for people with social phobias is being at a loss for words in interactions, and, luckily for us, many videogames provide conversation options. No longer are you forced to plan out conversations beforehand or scramble through your mind for any words that you can find.
Researchers looking into ways of curbing social anxiety are keeping this in mind when it comes to games. British company Xenodu and researchers at the University at East Anglia are developing software that puts people suffering from social phobias into virtual conversations, exposing them to multiple situations. Over time, it’s meant to “desensitize patients to stress triggers by having them repeating an experience,” according to a Fast Company article on the subject.
Speech options are programmed into the game and all you have to do is choose between a handful of topics in role-playing adventures such as The Walking Dead. Usually the differences between them are moral in nature, there to establish character relationships pragmatically rather than help the player to engage socially, but there is a certain comfort in knowing that any anxiety you might feel is not because of your social issues. Rather, it was a relief that Clementine could handle herself in conversations better than I ever could, especially high-stress situations where lives or loyalties are on the line.
Wrapped up in the conflicts of these other people that aren’t me, I grow more confident in my choices. When Clementine has to decide to either be polite or snarky, I defend my decision to all but spit in people’s faces. With Lee it was the same. When I had to choose between dropping Ben or trying to save him from an oncoming horde, I barely thought, letting go of his hand and moving on with my group.
The anxieties still prop up from time to time. In lulls between action, when it’s just you and another character, it’s more complicated than choosing to save someone or let them die (the typical choice in a Walking Dead game). In real life, the conversations are so much more than “yes” or “no.” But for a while at least, I feel like I have more control over the consequences of my actions.
Maybe there is some escapism left for me after all.