Why Gaming and Mental Illness Still Don’t Mix…Yet

Why Gaming and Mental Illness Still Don’t Mix…Yet

During my usual morning routine, which consists of desperately reaching for my alarm to delude myself into feeling a semblance of control, attempting to prepare myself for this week’s column but instead ruminating on my shortcomings and the looming shadow of death, and eventually succumbing to the combined weight of my whale-fat blanket and my sandbag of a body, I had an epiphany. We will never have an industry standard for games about depression. I know! Isn’t that fascinating?

When I say industry standard, I mean genre-defining. Depression Quest made an admirable splash in games media at the time, but no one of note is attempting to copy it or expand upon its mechanics (then again, the game is basically a multiple-choice test). On the other hand, World of Warcraft has been the target of WOW killers. You won’t find a Depression Quest killer. WoW is like a serial killer who has inspired plenty of copycat murderers. By comparison, Depression Quest is just a teenager who asked an off-duty cop to buy it alcohol. I’m not even sure if Depression Quest is the first game people think of when they think of games about depression, but I do think its existence helped pave the way for more games that dared to cover similar subject matter.

I’ll pause right here to give you my point. Do I think that this is a problem, one that warrants my usual impassioned rant that offers no real solution? I like to see the developers show their work on paper, mostly because there isn’t a correct answer for games about mental health.  The games I’ve played about mental health vary considerably, and yet they don’t try to copy each other. This trend correlates with the complexity of mental illness.

Well, there is one big similarity between games about mental illness: they tend to be ensconced in the horror genre. This kind of makes sense. Like most horror games, your experience may vary – if the atmospheric dread of Silent Hill doesn’t cause your skin to crawl, then perhaps the jump scares in DOOM 3 might shake you up. But no matter what your taste in horror – you might even find games outside of the horror genre that scare you more (like that damned piano in Super Mario 64 ) – chances are you look for something with dark atmosphere and excellent audio design.

However, at some point, I personally would like to see more games about mental illness that venture forth from the horror genre, although they are free to return and visit any time.  For instance, I didn’t feel a strong emotional connection to Never Ending Nightmare , an indie horror game about representing the designer’s major depression and violent imageries caused by OCD, because it used the trope of the hospital as a place to be feared. On the other hand, I’m deeply troubled by how eerily I could relate with the protagonist in Actual Sunlight . It’s not a horror game, but I felt petrified by how his struggles were like my own, especially since he can function in society. Still, I applaud Neverending Nightmare for creating a horror game because, well, anxiety disorders like OCD tend to leave their sufferers constantly frightened – they are a prisoner of their own mind, which sounds strangely like a Silent Hill game.

Another interesting conundrum a publisher or indie developer might face on how much they want to advertise their game being about mental illness. I’m really happy that a studio as “AAA indie” (their words, not mine) as Ninja Theory attempting to focus on mental illness in Hellblade . Considering that mainstream games deal with violence, it might be interesting to see games that explore how that violence affects a character’s mental and even spiritual wellbeing. However, due to the constant news of mass shootings, which inevitably turns to bullshit claims by politicians that “we need to focus on mental illness” without actually offering any solutions, I’m worried that the media might be able to spin a story similar to how games supposedly cause violence. Plus, I’d rather a disorder be a part of a character, not their defining trait.

Why Gaming and Mental Illness Still Don’t Mix…Yet

That’s not to say having your game about mental health as a selling point is a bad thing. Take Nevermind by Erin Reynolds. It is a first-person horror game about helping fictional trauma victims while teaching players effective stress-management techniques. To do that, Reynolds designed the game to be compatible with biofeedback monitors. If what’s happening on the screen stresses you out, the monitor will inform you. Then, you learn how to deal with your stress, even if you need to cheat by looking at photos of cats on your phone for a moment.  In this case, I can see why mental health is a crucial selling point.

Games about mental illness still have a long ways to go. There’s no right answer. No matter how far we come, someone, regardless of their intentions, will accidentally create a harmful caricature of someone suffering from illness or a disorder, and that’s ok. We’ll just offer our criticism, and then keep our eyes peeled for the next game. Mental illness is complicated subject matter, and I’m proud to live in a time where Matt Gilgenbach, Erin Reynolds, and even Ninja Theory offer us fresh perspectives or teaching tools. Even though there will never be a defining game about, say, depression, the fact that there are like-minded developers attempting it makes me feel, well, a bit more optimistic about life.

Image Credit: Sondem

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