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Understanding Mental Illness Through Video Games

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The subject of mental illness represents a delicate and almost taboo topic in modern culture.  Jokes about conditions such as autism, asperger’s, and PTSD are thoroughly frowned upon, and it’s extremely difficult for those not affected by a mental illness to fully grasp its detrimental effects and hindrances.  Despite the difficulties faced with understanding mental illness, the video game medium has done a miraculous job of not only properly portraying several different types of disabilities, but also allowing those stricken with such afflictions to properly convey how they feel, and alleviate some of their pain.  


Up until the start of the current decade, it was rare to see video games tackle mental illness in a grounded, serious nature.  Sure, games like
Eternal Darkness, and even the highly controversial Manhunt, touched on themes of insanity and madness, but both did little to capture the true fear and uncertainty that can come with having a crippling mental disability.  This common trend took a turn with the release of Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line in 2012.

Taking thematic elements from the novel Heart of Darkness, the game focuses on an American special forces unit tasked with eliminating a high-ranking officer who went rogue in the sandstorm-ravaged ruins of Dubai. Throughout the entirety of the game, the characters are pushed to their mental and physical breaking point, as the weight of horrendous war crimes, the slaughter of their own countrymen, and the morality of their task gets the better of them. In Spec Ops, we see the debilitating nature of PTSD fleshed out in a way never seen before in video games. Players are able to fully comprehend how difficult this mental affliction is in a grounded, respectful nature. Due to how well the game handled its subject matter, Spec Ops received massive amounts of praise from critics and players alike.  

While Spec Ops tackled the horrific nature of war, Ninja Theory’s upcoming title Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice looks to take on the darkest depths of schizophrenia. In order to properly depict the nature of this mental illness without projecting it as over the top or offensive, Team Ninja spoke with hundreds of people who suffer from the disease so as to understand it from a firsthand perspective. Hellblade is set during the early periods of Gaelic history, and focuses on a girl who is cast out from her tribe in order to deal with her schizophrenia, a practice commonly undertaken by ancient Celts. Not only is Team Ninja doing their best to properly detail the effects of schizophrenia, they are also accurately portraying an ancient practice taken on by those who suffered from it.     

That Dragon Cancer

Video games have always acted as an outlet for people to escape from the day to day dealings of their lives.  However, the medium could also be utilized by developers to relieve themselves of an emotional weight, or help them cope with a traumatic experience.  Such is the case with Ryan Green’s masterpiece, That Dragon, Cancer.  The game revolves around the death of Green’s son, Joel, due to terminal cancer, which he was diagnosed with at just a year old.  The entire experience has players move through the highs and lows of the Green family’s four years together, and tugs at the heart strings in a way very few games have done before.  More importantly, That Dragon Cancer acted as a way for Ryan Green to overcome his crippling depression, and gave players the chance to truly understand the debilitating nature of a mental illness of this magnitude.  Interactions like watching Joel celebrate his birthday, or pouring over hundreds of get well cards in the ICU make the game feel more genuine and grounded than any movie or novel ever could.  Its this intimate level of interaction that helps the player grasp the entirety of what Green suffered through, and how he and his wife coped with the loss of their child.  

papo_and_yo

In a similar fashion to That Dragon, Cancer,  Vander Caballero’s Papo y Yo acts as not only a depiction of mental escapism, but also as a means for Caballero to overcome his troubled past.  The game revolves around a boy who, hiding from his abusive, alcoholic father, stumbles into another world.  The boy must learn to work with a temperamental and dangerous monster in order to escape this alternate reality.  While the puzzle-based gameplay of Papo y Yo makes the journey fun and exciting, the underlying message of overcoming fear and facing your inner demons are apparent in every achievement that the boy and monster accomplish.  It’s clear that the monster represents the boy’s mental manifestation of his father, and there is even a section in which you have to force the monster to knock bottles off a ledge, symbolizing the boy’s desire for his father to overcome his vices. Clearly, the physical and mental pain that Caballero’s father inflicted upon him left deep scars, but through the creation of Papo y Yo he was able to overcome his depression and give his life new purpose.   

Mental health has remained a constant in all forms of media.  Countless books, movies, and television series have depicted the struggles and hardships of those with a mental handicap.  However, video games offer a deeper, more immersive look at the true effects of a mental disorder.  By putting the player directly in control of someone who suffers from disabilities like depression, PTSD, and schizophrenia, players gain a stronger understanding of just how debilitating these disorders can be.  Furthermore, those that suffer from said afflictions can cope with their discomfort and pain by telling their stories through video games.   

Carston is a freelance writer hailing from the always humid Sunshine State. He enjoys RPGs, grand strategy games, 80's New Wave and post-punk, and anything PlayStation related. If Game of Thrones, Mass Effect, or Chinese food are your thing, find him on Twitter @RolandDucant.

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