Imagine the worst

My experience was fairly unusual. Nevertheless, the intersectional game I’m sharing today is useful for anyone, because what’s true is that you and I overlap in terms of our ability to worry-based imagine, no matter our histories. Ask any parent whose teenager is out past curfew. This ability to have daymares (yes, that’s a word) is partly due to the following:

  1. Our brain’s negativity bias
  2. The rumination capacity of the default mode network
  3. Our natural tendency for cognitive distortions (Fun fact: Steve Jobs called these reality distortion fields while Zen practitioners sometimes refer to them as hindrances.)

If you like, delve more deeply using those links as starters, but know that I’m sharing tidbits just to prime you for matters of the game. For our purposes, those academic and spiritual terms all point to the same thing, which is our tendency to perceive reality askew, imagine unpleasant outcomes, take those outcomes seriously and chew, chew, chew. This game disrupts that process with intent. Those of you who are mentally healthy (I know you exist but the numbers aren’t high) may not see yourself yet in the behavior I described, so below are common thinking distortions you’ll surely be able to relate to.

I found this image in Lee Crutchley’s book, How to Be Happy (or at Least Less Sad) and designed a visual-thinking game inspired by it.

The game we play today – one I designed called ‘Event Horizon’ – was inspired by these distorted patterns (the four with checkmarks in particular). Like many techniques fromGamestorming, Event Horizon uses simple visual thinking to support the process of inquiry. I call it a ‘game’ because it has the features of a game as defined in our book, and I call it ‘intersectional’ because it’s at the intersection of visual thinking and deep self design. If you need a healthy shift today, one that could derail an anxious path you’re about to go down, this game is for you. Playing in earnest can re-calibrate nervous fixation on any approaching experience by helping your mind consider more options. Here’s how you play:

  1. Recreate a good-enough version of the visual above – on a piece of paper, a digital tablet, in a sandbox.
  2. Think of an upcoming event that’s causing you stress – a job interview, a difficult conversation, a family event that sounds like a hell-scape. (Oh, pardon. Different families?) Write, draw, or doodle that event at the top of the triangle and attempt a brief statement that expresses why the event provokes anxiety. Don’t overthink that statement. Just move your pen.
  3. On the left, again without overthinking, write the worst thing that could happen. The first thing that comes to your gut. (If you’re good at rumination, this part will come easy.) On the right, write the best thing that could happen. Use an unbridled imagination.
  4. Now your possibility space gets a workout. The task is to generate as many scenarios as possible in-between these endpoints. Some people like to keep these realistic; others like to go far out. Choose your own adventure. The visual organization can be loose, too.

A quick, personal example for those of you who need it: I am currently on a multi-week camping expedition. In my mind’s eye, the first-worst thing that could happen is that my now-ancient guardian Falkor dies en route in a manner unbefitting his nobility. In other words, he does not have a good death. Cold room. Metal table. Heartless vet. Lot of pain. The best thing that could happen is that he makes it all the way to Portland and lives happily for another five years, exceeding any rational expectation of the Pyrenean life span. One scenario in-between, that my mind didn’t consider until I slowed down and asked it to, is that Falkor indeed crosses the rainbow bridge en route but the supporting person at the clinic loves Pyrenees and treats Falkor with the dignity and respect he’s warranted. Other scenario: Falkor gets sick but doesn’t die and he introduces us to an adoptive puppy on the way to the vet. Other scenario: Falkor defies his expected life span like the curmudgeon he is, and his slow crumbling is not pretty but it offers intimate instruction on sickness, old age, and death.

Too dark? I did mention my Stephen Kingery. Besides, you get the idea. The idea is to PLAY WITH OPTIONS, to pixellate reality and keep pixellating it until not only do you have 20+ scenarios but you have exploded your endpoints. Because of associative thinking, you may find it difficult to generate plentiful outcomes. Don’t fret; this is normal, and it’s not cheating to add simple details for a new scenario, take as much time as you want, or ask someone close by for alternatives. Pushing past the obvious is the point, and that will take mental effort. But I want you to make that effort until you realize unequivocally that reality is so nonbinary that almost anything is possible, and you do not know nor can you predict what challenge, beauty or instruction will occur. Your gut-clenching, stomach-churning, worst-case scenario is just one, unnecessarily totalizing way to stress yourself out. Reality will never be as monolithic, or as negative, as our default network can imagine it to be. And even in the most awful worry-based vision, something useful, with silver-lining, can be born.

You see?

From @blcksmth on Instagram.

This is the first of many intersectional games I’ll share. Along the way, you’ll find that some of them break down – all gamers prototype and I’m no exception – and some of them break through. Sometimes the game mechanics will look like these – more for facilitators – other times I’ll simply offer an infodoodle and commentary. The through-line is that, like those clinicians who enriched my life one technique at a time, we’re doing the same with Nothing in the Way . Tell me how this game was for you.