A year ago, I discovered a video game that had very little gameplay, no guns, no explosions and no dismembered limbs. All it consisted of were words on a page and options to choose from that would lead you to the next page, like one of those old “choose your own adventure” books. It was an involving story that shed new light on the personal implications of an important topic. The game certainly had its flaws but it was powerful and moving, showing the potential of representation within this medium. It was called Depression Quest.
Mental illness has, until recently, been an issue that hasn’t been dealt with to a particularly high standard within video games. But lately we have seen a shift in the way in which mental health is handled. Games like Depression Quest allow us into the minds of people with these illnesses, opening pathways for compassion and understanding. Representation is an important ideal within any kind of storytelling. The interactive nature of games truly lets players inhabit a different person’s mind. Allowing gamers into the minds of a mentally ill person, taking on these problems as their own, has large ramifications for how we view and talk about mental illness in society at large. Helping people feel that they are not alone through these characters and stories is also incredibly useful. Other games like Sym, a puzzle-platformer that deals with social-anxiety, or Spec Ops: The Line, a shooter that actually has a compelling story with themes of PTSD and personality disorders, offer more recent examples of this kind of representation within games.
Video games can even help people with mental illnesses to cope with their problems. There are countless examples of people with social anxiety or depression who have found solace in online communities through MMOs like World of Warcraft. Many would argue that virtual interaction cannot replace face-to-face communication for people with these illnesses. While this may be true to some extent, we also shouldn’t ignore the benefits of being able to meet, interact and form real relationships with others in an environment in which people feel safe. Video games can also simply help us take our minds off of our problems and relieve stress. This is true for all people, but for those with a mental illness this is especially true and important, perhaps even vital.
Many would argue that virtual interaction cannot replace face-to-face communication for people with these illnesses. While this may be true to some extent, we also shouldn’t ignore the benefits of being able to meet, interact and form real relationships with others in an environment in which people feel safe.
Some therapists even use video games to help children and teenagers with depression or ADHD. Lindsey Dobson uses games such as Minecraft to help these kids to escape into a different world when they are feeling angry or need to focus (http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/25671185/could-playing-video-games-help-to-beat-depression). Of course, this kind of escapism has to be moderated but it can certainly help in a variety of cases. It has also been proven that video games can help improve the general health, memory and social skills of children, which is why they have begun to be integrated into the classroom as well.
Violence within video games has been a widely debated topic recently, with it even being discussed at the top levels of government. There is no doubt that gratuitous depictions of violence within video games can be damaging to younger people, and this is where the attention of parents has to come into play. On the other hand, the argument that video game violence can lead to mentally ill people committing heinous crimes takes away from the nuances of mental illness and the numerous causes there can be for a violent act. Gratuitous violence in contemporary media is a separate topic entirely, and not all video games depict this kind of violence. These arguments should not distract from the ability of video games to have a positive impact on a person’s mental health.
As a society, we need to find new ways to reach out to and help people with mental illnesses. The fact is, video games are not going anywhere. In an increasingly technological and video game filled world, its important that we use this art form for new and creative ways of dealing with the complex issues of mental health.