During Fall 2015, I helped guest edit a series of articles on Ontological Geek about mental health and video games with Oscar Strik, Amsel Von Spreckelsen, and Rowan Noel Stokvis. The following is my retrospective on the experience and the articles we published.
I talk about mental health and video games a lot. I make games about it. I write about it. And I’ll rail on about it after playing games that either portray mental illness well or do a giant disservice and in doing so, perpetuate stereotypes and harmful misunderstandings. I’ve often worried I write and talk about it too much. Worried people roll their eyes when I post about it.
But the thing is, it’s an uphill battle and not the kind of thing I can just stop thinking about. Or noticing. Or being affected by. When a game represents mental illness well, or manages to effectively convey certain symptoms, it gets under my skin (in a good way) and stays there. Games like Knock-Knock or The Cat Lady that manage to reveal tiny experiences and to show what struggling can look like to some people. These games carve out small spaces where people can search for understanding or fight against the loneliness that often comes with certain mental illnesses, like depression. Then there are games that get under my skin in the bad way. Like Neverending Nightmares or Downfall, (Downfall is funnily enough by the same studio that released The Cat Lady). Downfall cut me to the quick as one of the few games out there that tries to tackle eating disorders, yet it manages to fumble and fall.
Experiences battling mental illness are real, they are valid, and they are not always there — or even considered. To see mental health portrayed in a stereotypical way hurts me because I can see the damage it does in the way it perpetuates misunderstandings. But just as importantly, seeing mental health portrayed appropriately and with compassion and empathy just about makes me the happiest I can be, because accurate and sympathetic representations of mental health can lead to a more compassionate, nuanced, and supportive conversation around mental health and how people live with it. It’s why I started making games about my own mental health: I wanted to offer something to the conversation that I felt was missing, but also that I needed to put out there. I needed to make a game about having an eating disorder. I needed to make a game about depression, if only because I had no other way of talking about it, and I needed to talk about it, I needed to reach out and build connections with others. But most importantly, I just needed people to see and to understand.
With the features we ran during the special Mental Health Month at Ontological Geek, I’m so happy to see a diversity of perspectives on mental illness in gaming. Whether it’s Kim Shashoua’s Gaming Analogies in Group Therapy that offers an explanation about using games as a way to connect with children struggling with mental illness or Anastasia Valens’s Escapism & Mental Health: The Double-Edged Psychology of Gaming that looks at the benefits and drawbacks of the ways video games and mental health influence each other, there isn’t one neat conclusion that can be drawn. And that’s because mental illness is a unique experience, and no matter how effectively (or atrociously) the DSM criteria have been used to categorize and diagnose mental illness, the fact is people experience it differently — and react to the way it is shown in media differently.
With Ansh Patel’s Selves and Others in Vampire—The Masquerade Bloodlines and Riley McLeod’s Breaking the Circle: Exploring Trauma in Bioshock: Infinite, we see experiences of mental illness differently at times and we feel them differently, as well. There isn’t just one thing to say about mental illness and there certainly isn’t just one way to talk about them. What makes me especially happy to run Patel and MacLeod’s pieces is the way they create discussion on mental illnesses that are often left out of the mainstream discussion. Mental illness isn’t a monolithic experience, and just focusing on depression isn’t enough. It’s a step — an important step — but it’s only a piece of the overall picture.
I can’t just step away from my mental health, and I can’t — I won’t — stop making games and talking about it.
And I’m glad others won’t, also.