Friday, February 20, 2015

Not a game: Examining video games' damaging depictions of the mentally ill

The tropes are familiar: a protagonist fleeing from a deranged asylum escapee, stumbling over rocks, into the forest. A gamer clutches the controllers, frenetically trying to escape a machete or a chainsaw or any other instrument that spells certain death. Of course, the villain in question is bloodthirsty, depraved, and certifiably insane.

We've discussed television's and film's reliance on the mentally ill as plot devices, especially as the prototypical villains, but the stigma has lent itself extensively to video games. Through this medium, depictions are just as damaging, exploitative, and dangerously misinformed.

"The goal of widely-accessible media including movies, television, and video games isn’t necessarily (or even commonly) to correct unfounded views or social injustice. However, there is a social obligation to protect vulnerable members of society from misrepresentation, and to correct misrepresentations, especially within an industry partly responsible for disseminating them," stipulates an editorial in Kotaku.

The most common depictions involve amnesia, schizophrenia, and sometimes simply uncategorizable erratic, bizarre behavior that has no scientific basis whatsoever, as evidenced by Sims.

In one video game,  Billy Suicide "flippantly deals with depression and suicide in an arguably detrimental manner, and in which your character alternately jerks off, drinks, strips on camera, and watches TV in order to stave off killing himself (and to get laid) for another day." Denounced by mental health groups as overtly "lighthearted" and "irresponsible," the topic makes light of a serious topic in a way that makes depression into a punch line. Other games, such as Arkham Asylum and Manhunt 2, depicts the protagonist locked as an inmate an ayslum, having to stave off violent attacks from other patients in order to survive.

The damage of these games are prejudices that are quantifiable; according to Kotaku, 42% of self-proclaimed regular video game users expressed a reluctance  to interact with someone with a mental illness of any sort (regardless of severity), compared with the general public's 25-27%.

However, some mental illness games actually work to better depict the mentally ill. One such game, Depression Quest, which the player helps their character navigate his depression and its consequences, "aims to combat stigma by 'show[ing] other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people,' according to the game’s website."

Though not very much of a video game enthusiast myself, largely owing to inherently poor motor skills and hand-eye coordination, I encountered a game which deftly dealt with the topic of addiction, which in itself is a form of mental illness. "Papo & Yo" is a Brazilian game which details a boy's struggle to cope with his father's alcoholism by personifying his addiction as a monster who he eventually tames and comes to term with. I felt that it very much humanized the plight of his alcoholic father and how it impacted his family dynamic.

I find that video games depicting mental illness, much like any other medium, can be harnessed as an instrument for good. Video games like "Papo & Yo" and "Depression Quest' can offset the harmful implication of other video games and foster a sense of understanding for the mentally ill.

Nobody Wins When Horror Games Stigmatize Mental Illness. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2015, from

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