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Coming out, chilling out and welcoming in: the wonderful games of Nicky Case by Joe Donnelly

Nicky Case is a Canadian indie developer whose free and readily accessible browser games challenge us to think differently on a range of sensitive subjects which can hugely impact our mental health.

Coming Out Simulator is a semi-autobiographical text-based adventure that asks players to weigh up the pros and cons of coming out to traditionalist, conservative parents. Parables of the Polygons explores collective cultural bias and how seemingly harmless decisions can have distinctly harmful consequences for segregated communities. And Adventures With Anxiety offers a unique take on exploring the body’s natural response to stress by placing players in control of anxiety itself.

When we talk about video games as learning tools, Nicky’s wholesome, intuitive and thought-provoking games are up there with the best – whether you can relate directly to their subject matters or not, their scope to educate and inform is second to none. They are personable in nature, conversational and perfectly suited as browser games, to be enjoyed free of charge at the click of a mouse.

Here, we examine what makes each game tick and stand out from the crowd.

Coming Out Simulator

Coming Out Simulator claimed first prize at the NR8 Game Jam in 2014, under the theme “stepping outside your comfort zone”. Pulling from Case’s own lived experience, the game introduces its themes subtly at first – via dialogue prompts, players can choose how they broach the subject of coming out: either gingerly, matching their parents’ reprehension; or by doing so with vociferous defiance, rebelling against their parents’ outmoded outlook.

What unfolds is an often comical, sometimes sad, but always enlightening tale which shines a light on narrowmindedness, confidence and courage through the lens of sexuality, being yourself and being accepted for who you are.

As a straight male who grew up in Glasgow in the 1990s, my exposure to the LGBTQ+ scene was limited. Activities or actions which were perceived as different or other were often billed as “gay”, “bent” or “queer”, and while not intended as homophobic slurs, that’s exactly what they are. Games like Coming Out Simulator can help cement the rejection of casual homophobia.

I consider myself a rational-minded person, which means I’ve always appreciated the personal and social challenges coming out must present those who strive to do so. But Coming Out Simulator really helped me understand it – at least, as much as I could from a heterosexual standpoint. By putting me in the shoes of a gay character, I was in turn better able to empathise with the scenario. To this end, it’s no surprise Case has received tonnes of positive feedback from players who’ve found themselves in similar situations in real life.

Parables of the Polygons

Parables of the Polygons is a collaboration between Nicky Case and indie developer Vi Hart which is based on the work of game theorist and Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling. In his 1971 academic paper titled ‘Dynamic Models of Segregation’, Schelling outlined how a small preference to live next door to neighbours of the same colour could result in the complete segregation of entire communities – illustrated crudely by coins and graph paper.

In Parables of the Polygons, Case and Hart replicate Schelling’s work with a simple interface that asks players to move blue squares and yellow triangles around a grid in order to encourage diversity. Levels can only be completed when each shape is happy in their allotted space, spared from complete isolation in an area populated by their polygonal opposites. Ultimately, Parables of the Polygons strives to illustrate the so-called “tipping-point” in society and the challenges of achieving total equality. No one naturally wants to be an absolute minority, yet in a world where notions of segregation and pre-conceived stigma persist, even passive bias avoidance doesn’t work – active measures are all that can force change.

Parables of the Polygons was released in 2015, but is arguably more important than ever in today’s ever-divided world. The Black Lives Matter movement alone proves there’s a long way to go in race relations terms on a global scale; while the isolation wrought by the ongoing global pandemic underlines the need to unite and lean into what makes our multicultural societies so special.

At the time of writing, Case and Hart’s game has been translated into 11 languages, including Japanese and Arabic. Now, while I’m of the view games like this can help alter how we view segregation in the real world, I also believe seeing teams of blue squares and yellow triangles smiling together side-by-side will warm your heart in real life.

Adventures With Anxiety

Today, there are so many brilliant video games which explore anxiety through the eyes of their protagonist – Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight, Matt Gilgenbach’s Neverending Nightmares and Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest are but a few stellar examples which spring to mind.

But what if a game presented anxiety as the protagonist itself? Hardly orthodox but that’s exactly what Nicky Case’s Adventures With Anxiety does. Mind blown, right?

By asking the player: what is the function of fear? Adventures with Anxiety helps players understand what the function of anxiety actually is and, in turn, better positions them to deal with the disorder in daily life. In practice, the game is an intriguing mix of the puzzle, fighting and narrative adventure genres, and is the result of copious Google Scholar research into various methods of treating anxiety, including CBT, Psychodynamic and humanist therapy.

While keen not to spoil the plot here – you should experience that for yourself – the game ultimately sees players controlling anxiety and the human they look after concurrently, so as to maintain a rounded learning approach.

As someone who has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder, Adventures of Anxiety has made me reconsider how I view anxiety myself, and also how it can affect others different to how it impacts on me. Since its release in 2018, Case has been wowed by players who’ve reported their own therapists to have recommended Adventures With Anxiety, which tells you everything you need to know about its standing in the modern mental health discourse.

Nicky Case’s full repertoire of games is absolutely worth checking out in, however each browser game explored here can be played free-of-charge here:

Coming Out Simulator
Parables of the Polygons
Adventures of Anxiety

Joe Donnelly
Joe Donnelly is a Glaswegian writer, video games enthusiast and mental health advocate. He has written about both subjects for The Guardian, VICE, his narrative non-fiction book Checkpoint, and believes the interactive nature of games makes them uniquely placed to educate and inform.