Take control: video games delve into mental health issues

Sea of Solitude marks the moment mental health themes go mainstream in gaming

Sea of Solitude: as the game progresses, Kay realises the creatures she is encountering are humans who turned into monsters when they became too lonely

Sea of Solitude: as the game progresses, Kay realises the creatures she is encountering are humans who turned into monsters when they became too lonely

 

In the upcoming adventure video game Sea of Solitude, the main character – a young woman named Kay – navigates a partly submerged city as she faces a multitude of red-eyed scaly creatures.

None are as terrifying as her own personal demons. As the game progresses, Kay realises the creatures she is encountering are humans who turned into monsters when they became too lonely. To save herself, she fights to overcome her own loneliness.

Kay was modelled after the game’s creative director, Cornelia Geppert of Jo-Mei Games, an independent game studio, who struggled after a 2013 break-up. “I felt like I was trapped in a cage,” the 37-year-old said of her experience.

Sea of Solitude, which Electronic Arts will publish this year, is among a growing number of video games tackling mental health issues.

Last year a game called Celeste explored depression and anxiety through a protagonist who had to avoid physical and emotional obstacles. In 2017’s fantasy action-adventure video game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice,” a young Celtic warrior deals with psychosis.

Other games in recent years, including Night in the Woods and Pry, have delved into self-identity, anger issues and post-traumatic stress disorder. All followed the 2013 interactive game Depression Quest, which asked players to step into the shoes of a character living with depression.

These games are a far cry from the industry’s better-known storylines of battlefield heroics or the zombie apocalypse. But as a cultural conversation around mental health grows louder, makers of content are responding. Ireland has one of the highest rates of mental health illness in Europe, ranking joint-third out of the 36 countries surveyed in the annual Health at a Glance report. Some 18.5 per cent of the Irish population was recorded as having a mental health disorder, such as anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, or alcohol or drug use, in 2016.

“Mental health is becoming a more central narrative in our culture, with greater efforts to normalise mental health challenges,” says Eve Crevoshay, executive director of Take This, a non-profit that educates video game developers on best practices around portraying mental health. “With that trend comes response from creative industries, including games.” (Take This was founded in 2013 after the suicide of a video game journalist prompted a debate about the issue.)

Risk takers

To date, most of the games tackling mental health have come from independent makers, which are typically more willing and able to take risks by exploring unusual subject matter. Sea of Solitude points to a shift: a gamble by Electronic Arts, one of the industry’s largest publishers and better known for its Madden series of American football games and Battlefield war games, to invest in the topic.

“We were immediately captivated by Connie’s passion and artistic vision for Sea of Solitude, which is unique, beautifully realised and made more powerful by being an important one,” says Rob Letts, general manager of EA Originals, the label focused on publishing independent games.

Some in the industry said the interactive nature of games made them more effective than film or television at dealing with mental health. Embodying a video game character who suffers from depression might leave a deeper impression of the challenges of the illness than simply watching a film about the same character, for example.

Video games can be “a more effective way of bouncing back from negative moods than passive forms of media like TV or movies,” says Raffael Boccamazzo, a clinical psychologist who works with Take This.

That was what 26-year-old Sam Rodriguez experienced after playing one of these video games, Night in the Woods. Rodriguez, a freelance writer in Atlanta, said a diagnosis of bipolar disorder last year had left her feeling isolated and lost. But she felt a connection to the protagonist of the game, Mae, a college dropout who returns to her hometown but struggles to reconnect with family and friends. Rodriguez’s first play-through of the game was extremely emotional, she said, because “I was able to experience the world through the eyes of someone like me, who felt helpless and aimless in life”. She added that she felt especially drawn to Mae’s use of sarcasm to deflect and bury her problems.

 

Although Rodriguez was already in treatment, she says the game motivated her to be more honest and receptive with her therapist. She has since become an ambassador in a Take This program, in which she regularly discusses mental health on her social media channels and on the live-streaming platform Twitch.

Stardew Valley

Makers of mental health games say they have seen a similar reaction from other players. After the 2016 simulation role-playing game Stardew Valley – which does not punish players for not completing tasks and creates a slow-paced atmosphere where the objective is to take care of a rundown farm – was released, Eric Barone, the game’s creator, received hundreds of messages, he said. Players wrote to share their stories of how the game helped them cope with difficult periods in their lives.

“One story that comes to mind is a person whose little brother had autism, and as a result had great difficulty in relating with him,” says Barone (31). “But playing Stardew Valley caused him to open up and allowed the two brothers to bond in a way that was never possible before.”

Crevoshay of Take This says the games industry is at a tipping point in how it accepts and embraces mental health challenges. She wants to see more mainstream developers tackle the topic and more support for gamers who speak out about these challenges. “We know these are not easy changes to make,” she says. “But we want to try.” – New York Times

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