Living near Boston, MA, USA, I’ve attended PAX East almost every year since PAX expanded to the East Coast back in 2010. For anyone interested or curious about the gaming scene there’s a plethora of games to play and buy (PC, console, card, board, tabletop) and of course, dozens of panels to attend. What struck me was the number of panels focused around mental health and the gaming community. For example, check out this partial schedule from PAX East 2014:
This summer I had the pleasure of speaking with Brian Liberge, the long-running moderator of one of those panels, Inner Demons: Anxiety and Depression in Gamers.
SXP: Hi Brian. We first met in 2017 after one of the PAX East panels you moderated, Inner Demons: Anxiety and Depression in Gamers. It looks like this particular panel has gone through various names and guests over the years. What’s the origin story of this panel?
Brian: To my best recollection, the first time the panel happened was at GenCon sometime around 2009. It was organized and run by Phillipe-Antoine Menard, known by many as the ChattyDM. I recall seeing it at GenCon and seeing it at the first PAXEast back when it was in the Hynes Convention center. Phil is an incredible person who is giving and kind. He also lives with depression and wanted to share experiences with other people so they would know that are not alone. It was very powerful. I felt seen and welcomed, having dealt with depression and anxiety myself. When Phil needed additional speakers in 2012, I volunteered. My notes tell me that I’ve only missed one PAXEast since.
SXP: How has the general reaction been from PAX staff and attendees and are there plans to moderate this panel in 2019 and beyond? I’ve noticed the audience has grown the past couple years and there’s always a long line for questions at the end. Why do you think the gaming community intersects so strongly with mental health issues?
Brian: There are no plans to stop this panel. Ashley Biancuzzo and I both still live outside of Boston so hitting PAXEast is something we can do without needing to travel. She’s really the organizer theses days, I just get the ‘glory’ from being the moderator.
I haven’t heard too much from PAX themselves on this panel. The convention doesn’t invite us to speak, they just open panels submissions each year. So we keep submitting the event. I believe they keep accepting us because of the feedback from audience members. We have people who return each year to hear people’s stories. My anxiety and depression tend to act up when hearing about other people’s anxiety and depression so for me the panel can be pretty tough. I’ve also spoken on a number of other panels and this panel produces more audience appreciation than anything. People will come up not just after the panel, but later in the con (and even at other cons) to express how much they appreciate that the panel exists. That’s why we keep doing it.
I honestly don’t think there’s an intersection between mental health issues and gamers. I do think there’s a big intersection between mental health issues and people. The Entertainment Software Association’s 2018 survey found that 64% of US Households have at least one device for gaming, and 60% of Americans play games every single day. Gamers aren’t just a segment of the population, they’re most people.
Games do help us learn a few great skills such as collaboration and a willingness to try strategies that other gamers have used. How many of us have gotten stuck somewhere in a game and turned to a player maintained wiki or video tutorial?
We’re not targeting the gamer community, we’re just taking advantage of a space available to us, one we’ve come to trust, to talk about something we think is important.
From PAX East 2015
From PAX East 2017
SXP: As you mentioned there’s been incredible audience feedback from the Inner Demons panel. The Q&A at the end always spills into the hallway after the panel is over. What have been some common themes or questions asked by the audience?
Brian: I think most people just want to keep the empathy going. Most often we have people asking us to elaborate on a specific point in our own experiences or to share a bit of their own story.
SXP: As someone who has attended the panel I appreciate the openness from yourself and the other guests. It’s courageous to set aside your own discomfort to promote the mission of destigmatizing mental illness such as depression and anxiety.
Part of our mission at SleepXP is to explore the intersection between depression, anxiety, and insomnia. According to the April 2018 release of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, insufficient sleep is a known trigger of anxiety, and that has certainly matches my experience. For those plagued with chronic (>3 weeks), short-term (3-21 days), or transient (1-3 days) insomnia, it becomes a vicious cycle that feeds into existing suffering. For example, you may become depressed due to low melatonin levels and loss of sleep, or your metabolism becomes unbalanced and increases your appetite. Healthy sleep hygiene is a crucial part of managing mental illness and is generally not considered a strong point of the gaming community – at least according to anyone I’ve ever played a MMO with.
You have other moderator duties at GenCon and PAX, specifically with tabletop gaming. That’s a world I’ve never been a part of and wouldn’t know where to start. What sparks your interest with tabletop gaming and where does a newbie begin?
Games on Demand @ PAX East 2018
Brian: One of the things I love about PAX is how accessible they are making tabletop RPGs. Video games are a huge money making industry that dwarfs the world of tabletop. You’re much more likely to have played Halo or Candy Crush than you are to have heard about Dungeon World (an excellent and popular tabletop RPG). So if you’re lucky enough to get to a PAX or similar conference, that’s a great place to start. Pull out that con guide and look for Games on Demand. It’s a volunteer run area where a plethora of fun game masters. They’re waiting for you to come by and decide you want to play a game, no experience needed. They’re not in it for anything but the love of the game. It’s a guaranteed awesome experience.
If your con doesn’t have Games on Demand, take a look for Paizo or Wizards of the Coast. Those are two tiny titans of tabletop. They often run Learn To Play games at conventions and they’re pretty good, too. I’m a little biased as over the years I’ve slid over to volunteering with and sometimes running Games on Demand.
That’s where I get my spark. My favorite moments in tabletop gaming is watching players have those ‘eureka’ moments at the game table, when they realize a barrier doesn’t really exist. Video games have a limit that tabletop games don’t have, the programmers can’t expand the world in real time. Eventually there’s an edge to the map, or they didn’t program an option you’d really wish you had. If there’s a brick wall you can’t climb it unless the game makers created a rule that allows you to do so. In the world of tabletop if you come up with an idea the designers didn’t expect, the Game Master is there to facilitate a way for you to try. You might fail, but it will probably be spectacular and memorable.
SXP: Across all mediums – board/card/tabletop/computer – what are some your favorite games you’re playing now? Myself, I’ve been playing Sleeping Queens with my kids, trying to complete Hollow Knight on the Nintendo Switch, and recently got recommended to play another rogue-lite on the PC, Dead Cells. Honestly I can’t get enough of good Metroidvania type games.
Brian: I just got into Marvel Future Fight, on mobile. There’s the fun of collecting characters of love without serious pressure to check in daily for upkeep. The Civilization series has always been one of my favorites, and my fiance and I are wrapping up a long multiplayer game. The Australian-German alliance will be the first to colonize the stars.
I’m also GMing a fantastic Monsterhearts 2, where we’re getting to see the intersection of demonic, fae and coven powers play out.
SXP: Brian, thanks for sharing your story with us today. Where can people go if they want to learn more about what you do or care about?