Mental Health in Gaming

This month we saw World Mental Health Day where communities around the world came together to raise awareness of mental health and how we can take care of ourselves and others. In addition to this, hopefully by now you have seen Concrete’s own Mental Health Crisis Campaign which hopes to open up a dialogue between universities, their faculty and students, whilst reducing the stigma that surrounds mental health. In the gaming industry, there are two main ways games interact with mental health.

The clearest way mental health can be explored within games is to have active or playable characters who experience mental health concerns over the course of the game. There have been examples of both good and bad representations of this throughout gaming history; unfortunately, like film, there is many a horror game that takes place in an asylum or mental health facility. These often use the location as a source of fear and therefore impact negatively on the dialogue we must have concerning mental health. Often patients become violent towards the player which dehumanises them further and makes it impossible for empathy. But don’t worry, there are games that have better understood the complexities of mental health and produce quality content that continues the conversation. Arguably, the most important in recent years was Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, where you play as woman working her way through the Norse underworld whilst experiencing psychosis exacerbated by grief. The game makes use of incorporeal voices who insult, doubt and encourage you throughout the game, alongside hallucinations to give a powerful example of mental health in gaming. The designers took time to speak with psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and people with the condition, in order to accurately portray what one may experience.

On a subtler level, game designers have become far more conscious of their role in the mental health conversation and how to be an ally in games that do not actively engage with mental health. A great example of this was the most recent incarnation of God of War which explored themes of grief, PTSD, and toxic masculinity without removing itself from mainstream popularity. Santa Monica Studios took a game franchise which had been previously criticised for its misogyny and heavy-handedness, and instead produced a game where Kratos develops over the course of the game to become more open and understanding. They accepted their past offences and looked at how they could move forward with the character without glossing over his problematic history.

The other side to what gaming has to offer from a mental health point of view, lies in how they can help alleviate symptoms in some cases. Thatgamecompany, for example, have sought to challenge game tropes since their first game, Flow, all the way back in 2006. Yet their true masterpiece from a mental health perspective came in the form of Flower, a speechless and textless game where the player controls the wind to collect petals and bring colour to a dark world. The game was designed to stimulate positive emotions and players have reported a sense of calm caused by its lack of complex controls, gentle music and soft animation. As a way to expel anxiety and stress, the game offers an outlet, but there are games with a more specific objective. Apart of Me is a mobile game produced by Bounce Works which aims to help young people through bereavement by creating a safe space for them to explore their grief, whilst hearing testimonials from people who have been in their position. The game begins by asking for a name of someone the player has lost and then intermittently asks them to relive a positive memory or experience they shared with the loved one, whilst also completing tasks in-game. The portable aspect of mobile apps means that the game can be on hand at any moment for guidance and meditation.

Unfortunately, some of the hard work the gaming industry has placed into moving themselves into the current moment could be damaged by the World Health Organisation’s decision to include ‘gaming disorder’ in its 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases. The addition took effect last year, regardless of leading experts voicing their discomfort with the diagnosis citing lack of evidence, and the decision continues the cycle of negative opinions of video games as a form. What this may do is prevent people from seeing the benefits of games as a self-help resource and a serious environment for mental health exploration in the years to come. The reality is that gaming is a popular mode of communication with audiences that has only just begun to tap into its potential for understanding mental health.

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Martha Griffiths

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November 2021
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