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Side Quest – #7

– By Aecium

Islanders is a city building game developed and published by GrizzlyGames, and it’s not just another SimCity or Cities Skylines clone. It takes a different approach, one that’s more laid back and less hectic. It’s minimalistic in its visual details, the scoring system, and its currency.



The art style is simple yet descriptive. You can quickly identify what is what without needing a lot of explanation. You can easily tell what is grass, rock or sand, something that is important to the placement of some buildings. Similarly, the look and feel of the buildings remind me of plastic toys I could have played with as a child (or an adult, for that matter) which again lends itself well to easy identification. This also reinforces the fact that Islanders is just a game, and not something you need to worry too much about while you play. You are presumably playing it for fun, after all, a fact that many of us can lose sight of while playing some of the more involved city sims out there.

Mechanics & Game Play

Islanders sets you up to focus on the placement of buildings on its procedurally generated islands to earn points and unlock the next set of buildings or the next island. How many points you need is something that’s easy to track with the circular progress meter in the lower left, which displays how many more points you need. 


When you fill up the progress meter in the lower left you get a plus sign indicating you can pick the next set of buildings; normally you get a choice between two categories of buildings. 


Categories include but are not limited to, Farming Pack, Brewing Pack, City Pack, Seaweed Farm, Logger Pack, Fishery and many more. Another progress indicator in the lower right is a faded island icon that fills up as you earn more points.


When it is full you can choose to move to a new island or keep playing the one you are on. 

As you place a building/structure (such as a mansion, fishing platform, fountain, or many others), a point value is shown along with a radius indicating which buildings affect the value. Placing a lumberjack near trees increases its value but if you place a second lumberjack within range of the first, points will be subtracted from the total placement value. But keep in mind that as you place your sawmill you get more points for each lumberjack that is in range of the mill.

 And the pluses and minuses of buildings get more complicated as you play on. For example, the shaman gains points for being by flowers or trees, but losses points for being near the city center. Houses and mansions get plusses when being placed next to a shaman. This may sound complicated to keep track of but the game helps out by showing the potential value before you place anything. There is even an undo button that lets you take back your last placement. This is another feature that helps create the low-stress environment.

My Take

To be honest, at first I was not impressed but as I played on (mostly haphazardly) I started losing! I was like, “What the hell! They show me how many points I need and how many I’m going to get for each placement, how can I be messing this up?” Well, as I started to pay more attention, I realized that you need to apply strategy and forethought to each placement. You need to plan what you are going to use each space on the island for, and make sure your spacing is close to optimal along with keeping in mind what building packs you might get to pick from next. It all adds up and if you pick wrongly it can be a detriment to your score and the likelihood of getting to the next level. As I play more and more, the skill is in learning the buildings and how they can boost your next set of buildings. Even though the game is laid back and chill, I find that there are times when I still worry about not being able to earn enough points with the buildings I have left to place. When this happens, you get a game over screen and the option to try again. 

Final Thoughts

The creators of the game highly recommend you watch the video explaining how the game is different than a normal city builder, as they want you to have an understanding of what you’re buying before you do. I agree with them on that point. Islanders in not your standard city sim and you should know that going in. Then again, at US$4.99 price, I would find it hard to go wrong with this deceptively easy to learn and hard to master take on the city sim.


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Side Quest – #6

– By Aecium

CypherCon 4.0 is the fourth year of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s very own hacker convention that takes place each April. I was hooked from the first time I attended the event for CypherCon 2.0 and this year’s con exceeded the expectations I had from the past two years.

CypherCon has something for anyone who uses tech in today’s world. Whether or not you consider yourself a geek or a nerd, this con is accessible to anyone willing to ask questions, make mistakes and try new things. If you’re willing, you can learn everything from picking locks, cracking safes and decoding ciphers. You can also learn just how easy it is to exploit some of those Internet of things (IoT) devices everyone seems to have their homes these days, such as your smart thermostat, wireless printer, even your wireless light bulbs, and many others. And that’s just scratching the surface of the skills you can explore. Each skill has its own village set up with everything you need and specialists just waiting to help and break it down so you can understand how it all works.

While you’re learning new skills you also earn points toward the Capture the Con, an overarching contest that works to gamify learning and encourages socializing with your fellow con-goers. All three of the cons I have attended provided each attendee with a social QR code used to gather points by asking to scan other attendees’ codes in trade for scanning your own. Every point you collect puts you that much closer to winning some great prizes including cash, hard to get electronic badges from previous and even a coveted red badge that grants you lifetime entrance to future CypherCons.

This year the organizers took encouraging social interaction to the next level with the con’s interactive badges. This year’s badge, like all the previous years, was made by the amazing Tymkers (Toymakers) and was a working data tape reader.


To get the data tapes you had to find codes hidden around the con and submit jobs to the badge village. The catch was that each badge only had a certain number of tabs that would be punched out for each job you submitted, meaning you needed to find and talk to other people to trade data tapes in order to collect all the codes. As you scanned good codes, a row of LEDs would light up on your badge letting you keep track of how many correct codes you had scanned.

In addition to all the villages and the interactive badge, there were three information-packed presentation tracks that covered everything from digital forensics, remote wireless penetration testing, and even foraging for food in your own backyard. All the presenters I saw were passionate about their topics and excited share their knowledge.  

While the con is over, its effects are lasting. I’m still thinking about the new things I learned and the great people I met. I have a list of areas that I want to explore and deepen my knowledge including hacking old hardware and making sure the code I write is safe and secure, all the while knowing that sharpening my skills for my own sake will also give me a leg up at next year’s CypherCon.

If you’re up for a technological adventure or just interested in the history or future of the tech around us be sure to follow @CypherCon on Twitter to get all the updates on CypherCon 5.0. I hope to see you there.


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Side Quest – #5

– By Aecium

Magic: The Gathering – three powerful words that transport me to a simpler time. One where most of my concerns revolved around what homework was due the next day, how many days until summer break and how long it would take me to save up allowance and birthday money to buy more packs of Magic cards.

I started playing Magic after a friend introduced me to the game in 1994 when Revised Edition was the newest release. I had never played anything like it. Magic gives you the chance to be a creature-summoning, lighting-wheelding, magic-slinging, death-spreading, counter-spell-casting mage. It was amazing! To be fair, you can do or be all those things in many role playing games, and I had. But Magic boiled it down to just the fast action packed spell-casting battles, which in my opinion were one of the best parts of any role playing game. Magic made it so that now all you needed was a deck and someone else with a deck to challenge.

When I was in high school, the first place I looked for someone to challenge was a gaming store called Wonderess Realms. They sold games of all kinds but Magic seemed to be the mainstay for them. They had a small back room, that smelled of unwashed nerd and stale Cool Ranch Doritos, with several tables, a soda vending machine, an arcade game and the best pinball game ever: Star Trek: The Next Generation. I dropped many quarters into that game in between Magic games. But the main reason to be in the back room of Wonderess Realms was to meet up with friends, open new packs, build and improve decks and play against whomever else happen to be there. I can still remember the feel of the glossy plastic wrapped booster packs and the crinkling sound they made as I carefully opened them. Many hours were whiled away playing in that back room. But really anywhere that was protected from the elements and had a flat surface was fair game – high school lunchroom, mess hall at camp, or just a picnic table on a calm day. It was rare back then to find me without a deck on hand, ready to accept the challenge of a fellow mage at any time.

Somewhere between the years 1998 – 2000, amidst homework, getting a job, preparing for and starting college and life just generally getting more complicated, I stopped playing Magic. It was not an abrupt thing at all, it just sort of faded from being an everyday activity to every now and again. and then not at all. Oh, every once in awhile I would come across my cards and all those fond memories would come rushing back, but finding people to play with was hard. For most of my friends, Magic had also faded from their everyday life. Still, now and again a few of us would go out and buy a starter deck of the newest expansion and a few booster packs and play for a bit, but keeping up with all the new expansions and rules changes proved too difficult.

Magic had truly become just a game I used to play.

That is until the end of September 2018, when the open beta for Magic: The Gathering Arena on the PC was announced. Sure, there had been other attempts at digital versions of the game, like Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers in 2002 and Magic: The Gathering Online in 2009, which were the only two I ever tried playing. But they were both riddled with bad interfaces and lacked polished features which prevented them from ever really rekindling my interest.

But Magic: The Gathering Arena is leagues ahead of its predecessors. That’s not to say that it is perfect. It is worth keeping in mind that it’s still in beta and has some bugs, and some of the interface interactions are still clunky and a bit frustrating. However, the game is definitely playable and they are making changes and improvements all the time. Up until recently you could not play against your friends; it was all just random players that you would get matched with, and the matchmaking and ranking system had no meaning. You could win four games in a row and a progress bar would fill up, seemingly randomly, then lose one game and all your progress would drain out of it.

After a recent update, you can now play your friends. This is a major and much needed feature. Having the ability to play against your friends is great for more than just the fun of playing. No more hoping your deck plays out just right. Being able to play with a friend means you can have them “play nice”, maybe not attack at all, giving you time to practice and get the cards you need to try out that new combo. Or… maybe it’s time to go toe to toe with the friend who taught you everything you know about Magic, and possibly even prove that the student has become the master.

Another improvement is with the ranked ladder system. The solid progress bar has been replaced with a segmented bar so that you can now easily see your progress. It fills one segment per win or empties one per loss, making it easy to see your progress. And more importantly, you can see how many more wins you need to rank up.

Even though the beta still has a few bugs and some of the features could be made smoother (finding newly acquired cards and adding a friends list being the ones that jump to mind), the game is very playable. So much so that it has not just rekindled my passion for Magic, it has set it ablaze.

Magic: The Gathering Arena has removed the main barriers to playing. I can always find someone to play with at the press of a button. I can play with my friends no matter how far away they live. The game client knows all the rules and won’t let me or the other player do something wrong. And best of all, you can play for free! That’s right free! When you first start out you get some prebuilt decks and you earn more decks just by playing. You also earn booster packs, single cards and gold (one of the in-game currencies) used to buy more boosters. You can also spend real world money to get cards faster or buy gems (another in-game currency), which are harder to earn than gold. You can enter constructed tournaments with gold or gems but you can only use gems if you want to play draft tournaments.

Paying to get more cards is not a must. So far I have only spent US$5 on a beta only deal. The rest of the cards I have earned through playing. The game has quests you can do each day to earn gold, which you can complete without winning a single game. The majority of the daily quests will be something like “Cast 30 blue or red spells” or “Attack with 25 creatures” and so on. There are weekly quests that you can earn gold, a single card, or packs for winning but the bulk of your gold will be earned by completing the quests that don’t require winning.
At the time of this writing I have ranked up to Mythic, the highest level in the constructed ladder. I was able to build the decks that got me there only spending US$5 and earning the rest my cards by playing. The majority of what I have spent is time, and I don’t mind that at all. I’m really enjoying the game and the journey very much.

Magic: The Gathering Arena has enchanted me with nostalgia, sung the most perfect siren’s song, and has summoned out of its fallen predecessors an online version of Magic that has me once again under its spell!


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Side Quest – #4

– By Aecium

Here we are. At the tail end of another year. Over the next couple of weeks we will all be inundated with “best of 2018” lists: the best news bloopers (one of my favorites), best books, movies, games, and of course, the best of the worst. I thought of going full meta and creating a “best of 2018 best of lists” but I couldn’t fully get behind that idea. So instead I created a list of some of the programing games that I have played, none of which are from 2018. But I figure now would be a good time to share them with you; with the holidays coming up you may have some time off and be looking for something to help fill the void.

I have a soft spot in my heart for programing games. There is just something about solving a level by piecing together a set of instructions or processes, pressing the play button and watching it run. If it succeeds then you’ve beaten the level and can advance (or just keep running it and marvel in your work). If not, you have the chance to review what went wrong, rework it and try again. Programing games tend to be low pressure, allowing you to play at your own pace and take all the time you need, and try as many things as you want. Regardless of how long you spend working out your solution, there’s not going to be a horde of zombies, mutants, or aliens trying to kill you while you work. I find that refreshing.

Even if you think programing games aren’t for you, I encourage you to give these a try. Each game teaches you by building on the previous levels so you learn the steps as you go. And there are plenty of videos and hint guides out there to help you along. If you are stuck, and it’s either stop playing or get a bit of help, I encourage using hints. With the internet no one needs to play in a vacuum.

In the past there weren’t too many entries in the programing games genre, however, Zachtronics has become a beacon of hope for the genre and all three games I’m covering here are from them (there would be more but I’m only listing the games I have played). These games will have you create solutions to the various problems by dragging and dropping predefined actions or blocks of machinery, or by typing out specific instructions to solve a problem.

SpaceChem was the first programing game I played that did not have you writing actual code to solve the presented problem, which in this game is to create designer molecules. You create these in reactors by drawing out a path and placing instructions like grab, rotate, bond or unbond on that path for a circular atom manipulator called a waldo to follow and execute.


The goal is to use the incoming atoms and molecules to create the desired molecule, which must match a given pattern. You also need to be careful to prevent any collisions as the waldos move the bits and pieces around. If there is a collision the reactor will stop and you’ll have to modify your design to fix that flaw. There’s a story alongside the levels which gives context and a bit of drama to what you’re doing as you go, and the creators have even released a stand-alone version of the story incase you don’t beat the game but still want to know what happens. I have not personally beaten the game yet, but have picked it up several times and always enjoy playing until I get stuck. *Shrug* I’m sure I’ll play it all the way through one of these times.

I like to think of the next game, Infinifactory, as a 3D SpaceChem. In this game you are an abductee that is put to work by aliens that don’t speak your language and don’t really seem to care that you don’t understand what they are saying. They also don’t seem very concerned for your safety, as you are expendable and replaceable. Like SpaceChem, Infinifactory has you building a product to match a desired blueprint. However, you are now working in a 3D space and each level has its own shape, which adds to the challenge. Conveyor belts are the main way you get parts from the inputs to the many stations where you will be welding, milling, rotating, stamping or destroying unneeded parts, all before sending them to the output where they will be checked against the requirements. To get the full story you’ll have to do some exploring. In each level you can find a log recorder which contains the story and wisdom from someone who has gone down the path you are on now. Infinifactory satisfies a very specific desire of mine to build a factory line that moves raw materials from station to station, each one building on the last until you have your final product.


I don’t know, maybe I’ve watched too many TV shows that show how things are put together from start to finish. Regardless of the reasons, I find constructing these autonomous factory lines to be quite fulfilling.

TIS-100 is the final game on this list, and it’s the first one that actually has you typing out code to solve each level. Now please don’t let the word ‘code’ frighten you off. In TIS-100 you only need to use 15 commands to move and manipulate data that can be moved or loaded from 6 locations (registers) per node (more on that later). In this game your uncle has died, and your aunt has sent you a strange computer that your uncle had been working on along with the user manual for said computer. The manual has parts highlighted and some notes that your uncle had jotted down. While all progress that had been made seems to have been lost, you do find notes and musings that your uncle stored in otherwise unusable nodes in the TIS-100. You progress through each stage repairing the antiquated computer by rewriting its missing/corrupt programs. As you continue to find these notes, you start to piece together what it is you’re working on. Each level has 12 nodes arranged in 3 rows of 4 nodes. In most cases not all the nodes are usable, which adds to the challenge. There are set locations where the input comes in and set locations where the desired output needs to be moved to. In the simplest case you just need to move the given input to an output with no change to the input value. You can see an example in the screenshot which shows the first level with the game’s example code in the leftmost column.


While the TIS-100 is a fantasy computer, the steps you take and the solutions you come up with are nonetheless programing. And more specifically it is most like assembly language (albeit a simplified version), which is a class of low level programing language that all computers and smart devices run on and is only one step above the raw zeros and ones of binary programing.

All three of these games have an added challenge that you can take on. They all track statistics from your solutions like instructions/blocks used, cycles needed to complete, foot print of your design and they show you how you stack up with your friends who play, as well as with the global user base. If you solve a level and then see your buddy solved it in fewer cycles or using fewer blocks, you can, if you so desire, rework your design and try to beat or at least tie their score. Each level has a best case solution that you just can’t surpass due to parameters of the level.

I hope that if you do find yourself with some down time, or maybe you’re just looking for your next game to play, that you consider any or all of these great games. Even if you don’t fancy yourself a programer, these games might help you discover that you actually enjoy a bit of programing. After all, programing is not just for creating the games you enjoy, it can be the game itself.

While all three of these games are worth their face value, you can always snag them at great prices during sales on your favorite game delivery platform like Steam or GOG.



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Side Quest – #3

– By Aecium

Disclaimers: First and foremost, I am NOT a medical professional and this article should not be construed in any way as medical advice. Second, all experiences are mine and what has worked for me may not work the same for you. In short, your mileage may vary. If you have not read part one of this series, the following will make more sense if you do.

After dealing with my anxiety ineffectively for many years, I finally took the first step toward better mental health, although at the time it felt more like a leap over an impossibly wide chasm. But still, I took that leap. I, rather casually, mentioned to my doctor that when I’m dealing with new situations or new people, or old friends in new situations, or large gatherings of any kind, or even just thinking about those things and an almost endless array of other situations, that I felt anxious and sometimes that anxiety could be extreme. Like wanting to run and hide extreme. Like not being able to make simple decisions because I was paralyzed by the thought of making the wrong decision extreme. And that prior to said situations I would spend a lot of time worrying about all the possible outcomes, good or bad (my anxious brain did not discriminate). And that I would be left exhausted after.

He asked some questions and we had a discussion about the benefits of medication and one-on-one therapy. “Ha!” I thought. “Me, one-on-one with someone I don’t know, laying on a couch spilling my guts about my childhood and what this or that inkblot reminds me of, while this therapist, this stranger, sits smugly scribbling notes on their notepad, all the while silently judging me. I think not!” So we went with the medication only route.

Over the course of several months, not much changed. We changed and fiddled with the medications and doses which led only to small improvements. I wanted more. That’s when my doctor referred me to a psychiatrist for further scrutiny (treatment). I was reluctant about seeing a psychiatrist. I thought, “Great, I’m so messed up that my regular doctor can’t fix me so he’s giving up and offloading me on to a crazy people doctor.” Not to mention this would mean rehashing everything I told my regular doctor to a new doctor. No, not just a new doctor. A stranger. At that point, my regular doctor had literally been my doctor since birth – he delivered me. I was comfortable with him. And now he was telling me to go see someone new. Not what I had been hoping for.

The day came. I – was going – to see – a psychiatrist. It was not a productive day. I was too preoccupied with what I felt for sure was my impending doom. The I best I could figure, one of two things would happen. He was either going to tell me I was completely nuts and should be committed (I pictured him pressing a inconspicuous button and guys in white shirts and pants bearing a straitjacket coming to collect me). Or he would read me the riot act and say I was just whining about what everyone deals with every day and that I just need to suck it up and deal with it, and to stop wasting their time.

To my surprise, however, nothing of the sort happened. Amazingly, I was not the first patient anxious about meeting him. From the way I was greeted to the way he explained his process and treatment options, he put me at ease. Mind you, part of our conversation did include the fact that being there made me want to crawl out of my skin and go hide. He completely understood and assured me this was not uncommon. He assured me I was not the only one struggling with anxiety of this kind. I found that rather comforting.

We had a conversation that was not unlike the one I had with my regular doctor, although longer and more detailed, and we formed a plan. My psychiatrist, like my doctor, explained the benefits and side effects of medication, and just like my doctor, he pointed out that seeing a therapist in combination with medication would be the most effective way to deal with my anxiety. With the way they were pushing a therapist on me I would swear they were getting kickbacks from the therapist union. Like before, I expressed my strong dislike of that course of action and he agreed to table the topic for the time being. When all was said and done, I walked out with a new prescription. And the confidence that all my problems would be solved.

After six months or so of regular visits with my psychiatrist and some more fiddling of my medications, we found the right dose. It was like a someone reached into my head and flipped a switch. Suddenly, my anxiety floodgates were not swinging wide open at the drop of a hat. It was amazing! And yet… And yet, after a short adjustment period, and more conversations with my psychiatrist, I knew it could be better. I saw marked improvement and I wanted more! With that progress I was finally able to tackle the next step – going to see a therapist. This is where the work really began for lasting change.

My first therapy appointment was still rather nerve wracking, even with the improvements from medication. And not at all like the chaise-lounge-laying, rorschach-test-taking, parent-blaming experience that pop culture had lead me to expect. While those methods are not complete Hollywood inventions, they were not what my therapist practiced. He practiced cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on changing thought patterns in order to change behavior. Which is not to say that you come out a brainwashed, ear-to-ear grinning, mindless-shell of your former self. It’s a method of helping you amplify positive thoughts and minimize negative thought patterns. Still, a few things were the same as Hollywood would have you believe: he did have a pad where he jotted notes during the session, and there were a few “How does that make you feel?” questions, but all and all it was more like a conversation than an inquest.

With the help of my therapist, I tackled some of my most stressful problems, like catastrophizing. I gave a full example here in part one of this series, but to summarize, I was afraid to tell my coworkers about a personal project because, in my mind, it could lead to me losing my job, car and home. No really – that’s how I thought it would end. So in therapy we would start with something like “What do you think would happen if you shared one of your personal projects with a coworker?” and I would explain the whole convoluted way it could leave me homeless. Then he would help me work backwards from the worst point and we would discuss the true likelihood of ending up there. For example, I have a strong family safety net so when I got to the part about losing my car or house, he helped me realize I have family that would step in and help. Of course, once we reached that conclusion, I proposed “OK, but what if I have a falling out with my family?” and we talked about the likelihood of that happening. And in the unlikely case we did have a falling out, I still had a safety net of friends I could go to for help. Basically it went on in this manner: I would come up with what was to me a very plausible situation, and my therapist would help me work backward step-by-step and realize that, while possible, my dreaded scenarios were not very likely to come about. And that’s the way it went for a long while during my therapy sessions. Over time, it started to sink in that he was right. No matter how bad of a situation I dreamed up, it was not very plausible. And the strongest proof? None of my scenarios had come true. Ever. Rather damning evidence if I do say so.

 After working with my therapist for a couple of years, and making very good progress, I got to a place where I felt I did not need any more therapy. I felt I had been provided the tools I needed, along with medication, to manage my anxiety. My therapist agreed that I had come a long way from where I started out at our first session. It was time to move on.

Life went on and was better after leaving therapy. For awhile. I went about two years using what I had learned in therapy and medication. However, this eventually devolved and I slipped back into old habits. I also relied on a less than ideal coping mechanism by drinking too much. Thankfully, my wife helped me see that how I was coping was not healthy and that it was time to go back to working with a therapist. At the time, I experienced a whole rush of emotions, most of them revolving around what I saw as my failure of not being able to make it on my own and that I couldn’t tell my choice’s were bad ones. I lost a lot of respect for and confidence in myself.

When I called my previous therapist to schedule an appointment, he informed me he was retiring and could no longer see me. My only choice was to see someone new. I was not happy about it, but I knew that I needed to get support from a professional to get back on, and stay on, track. My old therapist made some recommendations and I picked one that turned out to be perfect for my needs.

 A lot of really great breakthroughs and progress came after starting therapy again. I really clicked with her style. She used CBT, the same as my first therapist, but she figured out ways to explain it to me that really made sense. We were able to not just chip away at my distorted thinking, but actually took out chunks at a time. While I had slipped back into the habit of creating complicated catastrophe scenarios, she helped quickly restore and re-enforce the work that had been done with my first therapist. From there, we dug in one-by-one to find my patterns of distorted thinking and find ways to challenge each of them.

One thing we worked on was my tendency to dread future events. By this point in working with her, I had re-learned enough to (mostly) stop building elaborate scenarios for things to go wrong but I still spent hours dreading it, especially if it was something I didn’t want to do. She helped me work through the numbers to see how much time I spent dreading. Let’s say there was a party I had to go to in 3 months. Initially, I might spend 3 hours a day dreading it. As the event neared, that time would increase and when the event was still 2 weeks away, I was spending 8 hours a day dreading it. The few days before the party I would be almost consumed with dread. Adding everything up, she helped me see that I easily could spend over 400 hours dreading an event that would last only a few hours. This blew my mind! That long? Really? Think of all the things I could have gotten done in that time. Think about all the extra energy I would have if I wasn’t spending it on dreading future events! Just that thought alone was exhausting.

It took a few times of running the “Time Spent Dreading” exercise before I really stopped dreading events so far in advance. What really helped this click for me was realizing that most of the things I worried about were not even in my control. Since I couldn’t do anything to change the situation, I didn’t need to waste my energy on dreading them. Now, when I notice I’m dreading something in the future, I step back and ask myself if there is anything (within reason), that I can do about it? If the answer is no, I challenge my thoughts about it and try to put it to rest. I say try because I still slip sometimes, and my therapist will still on occasion run the numbers with me. But not that often nowadays.

Another distorted thought pattern we challenged had to do with my low self-esteem and low self-confidence. This was heavily driven by my tendency to minimize my successes and maximize my failures. At work, I could do 100 things well but as soon as I did one thing wrong, that’s all I could focus on. Even if I had been praised for the 100 good things, I’d discount that as just lip service. I would convince myself that I was at risk of being fired. Clearly, I could not be trusted to do good work. Situations like this drove me to develop an almost paranoid attention to detail and extreme drive for perfection. Both of which did not serve me in a positive or productive way. It really just drove my stress and anxiety higher and for longer as I waited for someone to discover the problems in my work.

My therapist helped me work through challenging my thoughts of being a complete failure and being fired because of it. She pointed out the 100 things I got right, or the fact that I corrected the one thing I got wrong. She asked if my peers ever made mistakes? “Everyone does,” I said. She asked if I thought my co-workers worried about being fired because of making a few mistakes? “No.” She reminded me that there had been many company layoffs over the years and I was never a part of them.

I’ve gotten rather good at challenging these thoughts on my own now. If something happens that causes me to feel inadequate or like a failure, and I notice that I start to minimize the positives of the situation and just obsess over my mistakes, I step back, take a deep breath, and re-frame my thoughts on the situation.

One time during therapy, after going through an exercise similar to the one above, I had a very disturbing thought and a strong sense of panic. I became very certain that if we challenged and corrected my distorted thinking about obsessing over my mistakes, that I would lose my edge, I would start to slip. I thought if I was not being driven by my extreme anxiety to do better than my best that I would very quickly stop trying and end up not performing well enough to be kept around. I asked my therapist to keep an eye on signs of whether or not I was starting to slip in work ethic and performance. She assured me that was an unlikely outcome. And I can report that to this day the only effect thought challenging has had on my work ethic and performance is that now I can actually enjoy my successes. As for my failures – I now accept that mistakes are inevitable and I understand that I can learn from them.

Getting better at challenging my distorted thinking was not immediate and it still requires a lot of work to maintain. I work at it in the therapist office and I practice outside of it. I’ve found it important to be open and truly vulnerable with my therapist, which is scary and also takes time and practice. Being open and vulnerable can lead to some very intense sessions. For me this is part of the process and helps me let go of the bad and clear a path for a healthier and more resilient mindset.

What has surprised me the most is that with this new set of tools I have been able to stop daily medication for anxiety, something I had previously thought impossible. I have a prescription I can take for acute anxiety attacks, which still happen every now and again, but they are fewer and farther between. I know that anxiety will always be there, I’m not going to stamp it out completely. Anxiety is a natural and often useful emotion and getting rid of it would be bad. Right now, having the acute medication works for me. I understand that in the future it may make sense to go back on daily medication. I’m okay with that, because I don’t want those constant feelings and thoughts of dread, fear, and general anxiety to take hold again. I don’t want them to have a chance to hold me back again. I don’t want to turn down an opportunity because I’m afraid of irrational or illogical thoughts. I don’t want to be controlled by my anxiety to that extreme ever again.

I have come to realize that I don’t ever want to completely stop seeing a therapist. My appointments are farther apart than they used to be. At the moment I meet with her every 6-8 weeks and we might go longer than that at some point. But now I view seeing my therapist as part of good mental health maintenance, like getting a physical or going to the dentist. It’s just a normal part of my over health care regiment.

Looking back, I find it hard to believe that I once let myself be held back from things I wanted to do, but when I was in the thick of it there was no light at the end of the tunnel. I convinced myself that the activities and opportunities I avoided were ones that I did not want. I’m not ashamed of my anxiety or how I dealt with it. I did what I needed to cope and I survived the best way I knew how.

Now, armed with healthier and more appropriate ways to view and interact with the ever-changing world, I can look at situations that previously would have caused me paralyzing anxiety and see them as opportunities that I can chose to pursue or pass up. The difference is now I make the decision for the right reasons, not because of anxiety.

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Side Quest – #2

– By Aecium

Crap. It’s my turn. Am I ready? My mind goes blank. Shit, I had made a decision. What was it?

She turns and stares right at me. Tap tap, tap taaaap tap goes the pen on her pad as if she is sending me a secret message. I can only assume the message reads “Hurry up! I’m waiting! Others are waiting!”

My heart races, ringing in my ears like machine gun fire. I frantically search the page again. Are these even words? I can’t focus with everyone staring at me. What do they want from me? This should not be this hard. No one else seemed to have a problem.


Just pick something already! I search for what I think will have the least amount of questions.

“Ummm….” My voice wavers  “I, um, I’ll have the…” lost it. I look down again and pick the first thing my eyes land on. I blurt out “The Southwest bacon burger.”

“Ok” she says “And how would you like that done?”

Shit!  “Ah… medium.”

“And for your side?”

Damn it. I wanted medium rare. The pounding of my heart mixes with the sounds of the restaurant in my ears making it hard to hear myself think. Focus, just focus! Sides – what are the sides? Where were they listed? There they are. “Um… Fries.”

“Do you want wedges, seasoned, waffle cut, or regular?”

Too many choices. Why so many? Crap what were they? I think there were 3 or was it 4 choices? They’re all potato, just pick one. “Umm.. the 2nd one.”

“The seasoned fries?”

“Yes, those.” Please let that be all!

As she moves on to the next person at our table I slouch down a bit and relax. Well, as much as I can anyway.

That used to be the norm for me. Beyond the discomfort in the moment the anxiety would leave me drained and the stress could linger well after. It’s been a long journey to better mental health and the hardest part for me was taking the first step.

Anxiety is a natural emotion that is part of our fight or flight response. When working normally, anxiety helps you realize that something’s not quite right and that you might be in danger, so it starts to prep you to run or hold your ground. However, for some people, like myself, it fires too often or for things that are not life threatening, and it goes well above the level that is needed. It comes in all shapes and sizes and can be custom fit, at no extra charge, to each person’s fears and vulnerabilities. For me, that meant things like an overwhelming fear of failure (which prevented me from finishing or even starting projects), fears of conflict (I would not speak up or disagree) and an intense discomfort when interacting with people that I didn’t know well (first days at school or interviewing for jobs were never good days).

I’m not completely certain when my anxiety crossed over from helpful alarm system to an overactive panic and dread machine. The best I can pinpoint it, would be in middle school, which for me was 7th and 8th grade. It was a culture shock with a shift from having one teacher and classroom for all your classes, to having a different teacher and room for every subject.
I had to remember where all the classrooms were, where my locker was, the combination for my lock, and which books and folders I needed for the next class. All of that in the time allotted for passing between classes. Also, kids are mean and they seemed to be at their worst in middle school. I know all of my peers were also adjusting to the same stuff. However, during those two years I had extra difficulties. I was once again being teased for my lisp, even though it was far less noticeable than when I was younger, and for being “learning disabled” (I’m dyslexic, which added its own fun issues). It was a lot to deal with and trying to find appropriate ways to cope with it all was hard. And to be honest, I missed the mark. While I did find ways to cope and survive, they were not always the most effective.

To the credit of my parents, I did not become a member of the “wrong crowd,” which seemed to be a common response for kids in the learning disabled category. My parents always encouraged me to do my best, made sure that I received the help I needed both at school and at home, and provided me with what I needed to pursue and excel at the things I was passionate about. Thanks to all of their support I was able to accomplish more than I would have otherwise thought possible.

However, my anxiety problems were not something my parents could help me with. That’s because one of the first things I figured out was how to hide it. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention to myself in any way.

I want to make something completely clear at this point. The decision I made to hide and not talk about my anxiety is one of the worst things I could have done. But, I didn’t know any better at the time. Even if I had thought about asking for help, this was the 90’s and there was not much talk about mental health issues. The little talk there was, was heavily stigmatized . I had already been branded learning disabled, I didn’t want to be labeled as crazy, too.

So I kept quiet about the sheer panic I dealt with on a regular basis. I learned to avoid putting myself in situations that would involve making a lot of decisions, interacting with new people or worse, a combination of the two. Something as simple as shopping by myself could cause paralyzing anxiety. So whenever possible I would go with a friend, someone who was willing to ask a store employee for help if we could not find what I needed. Even then, there were plenty of times that I would leave a store without buying what I had gone there for.
I would rather leave than interact with people I didn’t know. I was afraid of being judged as inadequate or incapable. Something as simple as asking for assistance (from someone, who mind you, was being payed to help customers) was too risky. In my mind, if I needed to ask for help it was proof that I was somehow not up to the task, whatever that task happened to be. If I could not find the thing I needed, or worse, did not know exactly what I needed, how could I even consider that I might succeed? I was also positive the employee helping me had better, more important things to do. I was certain that I would be the focus of their next rant in the break room about the idiot customers they had to deal with.

Some of the worst times were when I had to travel for work to install equipment at hospitals and most of that was travel by myself. Those trips were terrifying for me in so many ways. Everything about them caused me anxiety! Getting to the airport on time, getting checked in, going through security and finding my gate were all things that, in my head, could go so wrong in so many ways.

Once I landed at my destination I had to get my rental car and find my hotel. This was before the time of everyone having a smartphone with GPS so getting lost in a strange town was a very real possibility. Then I still needed to find the hospital that I was going to be working at during that trip. I typically saw only three places when I had to travel for work – the airport, my hotel and the hospital. Luckily for me, by that time you could order pizza on the internet, which saved me at least one interaction. The only reason I was able to travel and survive was the mere fact that it was required for my job, and I was more afraid of being fired and unemployed. That was enough motivation to force myself through everything I needed to get done.

Dealing with constant anxiety throughout the trip was not without consequence. Afterward, I was absolutely wore out physically (due to a nearly constant racing heart and what I can best explain as a full body buzzing or the butterflies in your stomach on steroids), mentally (because of the sheer amount of will power exerted to push through it and the extra difficulty of having to problem solve through the “anxiety fog”) and emotionally (fighting fears of failure, self doubt, and why no one else seemed to have this problem). I would seclude myself and have as little interaction with the outside world as possible so I could recover and recharge from it all. If you can imagine how you might feel after a multi-day mountain hiking trip during which you were also studying for and then taking final exams, you will start to have an idea of how it felt.

For me, anxiety was not reserved just for during and after the triggering event. The days, weeks and sometime months leading up to an event could be just as bad and draining.
I would obsess about all the things that could go wrong from the simple to the outrageous. Sometimes the scenarios I came up with were like a Rube Goldberg machine of circumstances.
The things that would have to happen for the end scenario to play out were so remote, so unlikely to happen that to even give them a second thought would seem ill advised. But I would not only give them a second thought but a third, a fourth, a fifth, ad infinitum, so much so that any idle time was spent coming up with and going over such scenarios in my mind. Trying to go to sleep was one of the worst times. Nothing but idle time to think and worry and plan for things that would very likely never come to pass, and honestly, to my recollection, never did.

Here is a very real example of the kind of thinking that plagued me. Say I were to tell my coworkers about a personal project I was working on at home, such as a computer program. This would open me up for criticism. My coworkers might think the project was stupid and, by extension, that I was also. If I wasn’t able to complete the project, which was inevitable, that would be proof for everyone to see.
I was a stupid failure. My manager would find out and, learning that I was a stupid failure, realize that hiring me had been a mistake, one which they would promptly remedy. I would be unemployed which would mean Dealing with interviews, where I would have to explain why I was unemployed. Even if the interviews somehow went well, which I could not see happening, it would all come crashing down when they called my last job for a reference. I wouldn’t be unable to get another job and I would default on my car loan, then my house. In the end, I’d be unemployed, with no car, and homeless, all because I talked to some coworkers about a project I was working on in my spare time that had nothing to do with my job. It was exhausting.

Patterns of thinking like this are a form of distorted thinking, that is, when the thoughts you’re having are not in line with reality or within reason. Having irrational thoughts is not abnormal but it becomes a problem when they take hold and grow into something that prevents you from enjoying, or even doing, activities you normally would have. That is a major point! Take note. When anxiety (or other thoughts and feelings) gets to the point where they prevent you from enjoying or doing activities you normally would, that’s a problem and a sign to get help.

In the second part of this article, I’ll talk about the steps I took to get help for my anxiety and how it helped me tame the fears that fueled it.

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SideQuest – #1

– By Aecium

My journey to creating Side Quest is a winding one that has given me the chance to face my anxieties and which I can trace back Starcraft.
I actively played Starcraft & Starcraft: Brood War from their release until somewhere around 2004.
The campaign is what hooked me, with a story that spanned the depths of space and three very unique races.

After beating the campaign I played custom maps, free-for-alls, and comp-stomps. The ladder was not a place I felt comfortable in. The few times I did click that button, the games ended fast and painfully; I was not up to the task.

Eventually, my attention turned to other games and to more “adult” goals, including a full time job, a girlfriend who is now my wife, buying a house and so on.
Being a computer geek at heart, games were still a part of my life, just not always as much as they had been.

As 2010 approached, I heard about and felt the hype for Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty. However, I steered clear. I was not ready to get sucked back in just yet.
My resistance to StarCraft 2 held strong until mid 2013 when I stumbled onto to the Twitch app on the Ouya. That weekend, StarCraft 2’s World Championship Series happened to be a featured stream. I watched players like Polt, Scarlett, Jaedong, and MC playing StarCraft 2: Heart Of The Swarm at amazing levels. I was hooked all over again.

Within a week of watching the WCS, I bought Heart Of The Swarm and was pulled back into the the Starcraft universe.
Again, I started with the campaign and was reintroduced to old friends in the continuing saga where the very existence of the universe was again in the balance.

After saving existence as we know it, for the time being, I turned from the safety and comfort of the single player to the ladder. This time, thanks to the advancements in matchmaking and league placement, it was not as scary. I still lost a lot but not as badly or as often.

During a ladder game, my opponent and I got to chatting and became friends in game, and when we were both online we would play games together. At one point, he joined a clan called TripleT. (A clan is just a group of players with similar goals of getting better and willing to help others grow their skills.) After that it did not take too long before I was invited to join TripleT. It was with the help of TripleT that I was able to rise from Bronze league to Gold (StarCraft 2’s leagues are Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Master, Grandmaster).

More importantly in my journey to Side Quest though, was that TripleT turned out to be associated with a startup StarCraft 2 tournament organizer, the ASL, which had tournaments for all levels of players Bronze to Grandmaster. I played in all 6 seasons of the ASL. After season 1, I began volunteering for the ASL, helping with admining, Twitch moderation, building and maintaining the website, and so on.

Toward what ended up being the winding down of the ASL, they were looking for people to create content for the Twitch channel. I took a chance and pushed past my anxieties and hesitations, I offered up a show based on Archon mode, a new mode of play added in the latest expansion of StarCraft 2: Legacy Of The Void.

I thought Grizzly was the perfect person to co-host the show. I had came across Grizzly earlier by mere happenstance when I responded to a Tweet from her. She was a streamer dedicated to improving in StarCraft 2 while building a fun and entertaining stream with a great community.

So I approached her about the idea and when she agreed, Party Like An Archon was born, a two hour show that I ran production for and starred Grizzly and me playing StarCraft 2 on the ASL channel. Toward the end of 2016, Party Like An Archon was the only live show on the ASL channel. And by that point, Party Like An Archon had changed from just a way to create content for the ASL into friends hanging out, playing games, and having fun.

We wanted to grow Party Like An Archon so we made the leap to Grizzly’s Twitch channel where we quickly expanded the games we played from just StarCraft 2 to a larger set of games including OverWatch, Diablo 3, Portal 2, Heroes Of The Storm, and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. With more games came new challenges. Production wise, there were more scenes, more overlay configurations, more things to go wrong. And they did. Once I streamed the first 20-30 minutes to my local server instead of Twitch, and I have had my fair share of having the wrong scene up or leaving the mics muted.

One of the most surprising things to me was that I survived those mistakes and I had not died of embarrassment. People still watched and Grizzly reassured me that it was alright and continued to join me on stream. At the beginning, my fears and anxieties would have me think and feel like I could not succeed and that I was foolish for trying (but that’s another article), and yet Party Like An Archon was more than halfway through its second year.

I decided I was ready for more! I had streamed on my own channel every now and again, but I never had a set schedule. I would just stream whenever, which tended to be less and less often. I decided full playthroughs of games would have the right balance of variety to keep it interesting. At the time I pitched the idea to Grizzly and Polaris, all I knew was that I would like to do a show doing full playthroughs of games and could commit to doing it once a week for at least two hours. I didn’t even have the name until a few weeks later when I realized what I was looking for was a Side Quest. That is, I wanted something that was not a main day-to-day requirement like my career, and was important enough to put time, effort and resources into it. More importantly, it would be an opportunity to push myself, build new skills and have fun doing it. This project has also given me an opportunity to create a custom font and an animated loading screen.

Looking back on everything that led up to Side Quest, it makes me realize how amazing the gaming community can be. It gave me a space to create and the encouragement to continue in my journey. I started off being afraid of playing ladder in StarCraft: Brood Wars, where all anyone could see is your name, to being comfortable playing and making mistakes in front of people, something I would never have thought I could do and survive.

When Grizzly and I started Party Like An Archon I was not a streamer or a content creator. Now I’m very proud to be able to call myself both. What I realized is that it doesn’t matter what you are or are not. Just start doing whatever it is you want to be. Before you know it you’ll have accomplished more than you would have thought possible. To that end, I’m not a writer, and yet here I am. Please join me as I take the next step in my journey.


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