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Mental Health Meets Video Games

With Celeste, a game touching on issues of mental health recently winning best independent and games for impact at the 2018 game of the year awards it shows that it’s not just huge action orientated games being held dear to gamers.

Deep down in Celeste’s narrative lies strong links to issues of mental health which have resonated with many players and as a result it’s no surprise the beloved game won the Games for Impact award.

With this in mind we decided to take a look at the current representation of mental health in video games and why it’s so important for the medium of games to explore these issues.

Celeste comes across as your typical artful indie platformer on the surface however what lies below are real issues of depression and anxiety.

As you progress through the game it becomes a more personal tale as the player controls Madeline who begins to face her fears and problems head on.

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Celeste – Matt Makes Games

The goal of the game is to reach the top of a mountain and as the gameplay becomes more challenging so does the story as Madeline begins to be haunted by characters telling her to turn back and give up.

These characters are part of Madeline’s psych in a physical form, manifesting themselves as fearful creatures that change the tone of the game and put an extra level of stress and panic on the already testing gameplay.

Madeline also often has panic attacks and at certain points the game itself steps in to help both Madeline and the player in the form of a mini game helping to calm her down.

But Madeline never truly overcomes her mental struggles but rather, learns to accept them something many of us have dealt with when it comes to mental health.

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Celeste – Matt Makes Games

It’s clear this game effected people with Matt Thorson the game director saying: “If Celeste has helped you come to terms with mental illness, you deserve credit for that, that change came from inside of you and you’re capable of a lot more.”

It’s perhaps one of the best and most well thought out games about mental health available at the moment.

Looking Further

Diving deeper into the industry you start to uncover a range of games tackling mental health.

You have games like Life is Strange which tackles issues of depression, anxiety and suicide.

The player has a moment in which they find their friends medication – but no huge fuss is made over the discovery which for many was a small, but hugely important moment in representing mental health.

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Life is Strange – Dontnod Entertainment

The game also sees a sequence by which you try to help a girl about to take her own life as the game forces you to come to terms with how you treated her throughout and this ultimately effects the story and consequences.

The game also had helplines included – something the TV show 13 Reasons Why was heavily criticised for not including.

They even have a dedicated website with helplines for each country to help people access help when they need it or have affected by the issues seen in the game.

Then you have games like Child of Light and That Dragon, Cancer which help deal with loss and grief.

Child of Light sees a young girl named Aurora lose her mother which ultimately sends her into depression represented in game by her turning cold and slipping into a deep sleep, whilst her father fears he has lost her forever.

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Child Of Light – Ubisoft Montreal

In the story, she seeks to save a magical kingdom and her father which is a metaphor for her seeking to get better and reassure her dad again.

That Dragon, cancer is an autobiographical game about what a family went through after their son, Joel was diagnosed with cancer at 12 months old.

It’s a heart-breaking tale with players often feeling helpless and features many poignant, emotional moment’s, coming to terms with such a tragedy and having to watch as Joel’s condition deteriorates.

Depression Quest tackles mental health more literally as the title suggests.

It sees the player go through a simple text adventure trying to make it through their day.

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Depression Quest – Zoë Quinn

The game limits your choices as you go on trying to tackle social issues, your job and taking your medication or seeing a therapist.

This can make the game extremely frustrating as you ultimately are left with one option making for a very engaging and accurate representation of depression itself.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is perhaps one of the most interesting and fresh depictions of mental health in recent years.

It tackles issues of schizophrenia and psychosis something rarely seen in video games and when it is, it’s often misrepresented in games focusing on horror.

The trauma of losing a loved one and having to retrieve their body by travelling through the gates of hell uproots many challenges along the way.

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Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – Ninja Theory

Senua sees a range of enemies and hears a myriad of voices confusing her constantly, fleeing unknown monsters and in some cases turning to self-harm to try to quiet the voices in her head.

The entire experience is a result of her struggling with psychosis and is a very harrowing portrayal.

These are just a handful of games representing mental health disorders – for the most part, the right way.

Whilst you can’t call all of them perfect they are no doubt important and a means to get people to create a dialog about the issues the character’s and players face.

Why Representation of Mental Health Matters in Games

According to the mental health charity MIND one in four of us experience a mental health problem each year.

That’s a staggering amount, yet it’s rarely been properly presented in video games until recently.

Games dealing with themes of mental health issues matter due to the fact they are like no other medium.

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That Dragon, Cancer – Numinous Games

You actively participate in a game, you become immersed which can help you understand in even more detail what people face and could even help players come to terms with their own struggles.

Games also have the chance to enable players freedom and the ability to craft their own tale which is something especially true of mental health as many of us don’t experience the exact same issues.

They are also beginning to combat the tropes of mental health being associated with a mad villain or creepy character as seen in games like Outlast.

They have evolved just as much as any other medium and are now being used as a device to explore issues many of us face.

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Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – Ninja Theory

Some studios are now employing or consulting mental health professionals and sufferers to make depictions more accurate.

With the statistics, it’s also likely that someone or many people working at game studios have experienced mental health problems at some point in their lives.

As Luca Dalco, Creative Director at The Town of Light developer LKA said “I’m personally convinced that in order to destroy the stigmatisation of mental diseases, the magic word is ‘empathy’.

“It means understanding the deep suffering that leads the lives of people who suffer from mental diseases, but it is important to understand it is not rational, but rather emotional.

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The Town of Light – LKA

“Games fit this need very well and I hope growing numbers of developers will use them this way.” (Jem Alexander, MCV, 2017).

Developers are now starting to move away from the norms and instead explore new themes that were waiting there, ready to be explored and talked about all along.

If you or someone you know are suffering with mental health problems you can contact the organisations below for advice and support.

UK

Mind – https://www.mind.org.uk or 0300 123 3393

Samaritans –  https://www.samaritans.org/ or 116 123

Information on how to access mental health services with the NHS.

Outside of the UK 

Befrienders – https://www.befrienders.org/

#StopStigma

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