The words “retard” and “crazy” seem innocent enough when shouted at friends but they are filled with a dangerous power. They’ve been used to lower self-esteem as well as to negatively define the mentally ill. In a time when the mentally ill were shipped to asylums, these harsh words created images of doom. While mental health issues are finally being addressed, there are some disorders that many cannot adjust to. Mental illness sufferers learn very quickly that opening up about less known disorders can make people uncomfortable. Fortunately, times are changing and as society gingerly confronts mental illness, video gaming appears to be tackling the subject as well.
Indie games such as Depression Quest, Actual Sunlight, The Cat Lady, and Darkest Dungeon have bravely touched upon mental health topics. I applaud the indie gaming industry for discussing mental illness, but it’s a subject the AAA industry is avoiding altogether.
Does the AAA industry still view mental illness as a stigma? If so, why?
While we don’t have definite answers, I’ve compiled some possible reasons as to why the stigma may still be very strong.
Games Featuring Mental Illness Are Risky
Hellblade developer Ninja Theory revealed last year that they were risking millions when they decided to feature a heroine suffering from schizoaffective disorder. After releasing DmC: Devil May Cry, the company decided to fund and create their own game. Ninja Theory’s fears may be well founded. With an industry dominated by action games and a new generation with low attention spans, most gamers won’t be drawn to games like Depression Quest. For those who long to escape, the reality of mental illness is too disconcerting. Public discomfort with mental illness is exacerbated by the media’s insistence that gaming causes violent behavior.
The Mentally Ill Are Our Enemies
How can the AAA industry begin to speak about mental illness issues when they villainize sufferers? Final Fantasy VI’s main villain Kefka was described as “having a screw or two missing” by writer Yoshinori Kitase. The psychotic antagonist burned down a castle, poisoned a river, and had soldiers murdered at the hands of his slave. Is there a specific reason why Kefka did any of the above? No. He only seems to get a thrill out of it and he’s just missing some screws. This sort of explanation makes the player believe that people in real life who display these symptoms are to be avoided. If Kefka hadn’t been insane, would he still be one of gaming’s greatest villains?
Kitase can’t be completely blamed. Final Fantasy VI was released in 1994, a time when the Americans with Disabilities Act and the National Public Education Campaign on Depression were just catching everyone’s attention.
Though Kefka’s characterization can be attributed to the times, the mentally insane person as the villain trope still exists in gaming today.
In the Arkham series of Batman games, Joker has become unhinged. The Arkham Joker tortured and murdered Batman’s cohorts (including Robin) and slaughtered a multitude of Gotham City residents. He even commanded an army of asylum patients to attack Batman as he traversed Arkham Asylum. Why? He found glee in causing chaos, particularly if it involved harming Batman and his associates. Joker even admits his encounter with Batman psychologically damaged him. Gotham authorities ultimately deemed him as a psychopath lacking empathy.
Unfortunately, Hellblade’s “AAA indie” heroine Senua is heading toward this same troubled territory. Psychologist Tracii Kunkel warns that Senua defeating “demonic” individuals with a sword perpetuates the stereotype that individuals suffering from schizoaffective disorder are violent.
In the AAA gaming industry, insanity trumps unique motives in order to create less boring adversaries. To use insanity as a motive is akin to saying that all mentally ill people are inherently violent, even if some are oblivious to their actions.
Death and Video Games
Every action taken requires a reason for its occurrence. With that said, do video games lead to tragic events? The media and some professionals would have us believe that this is the case.
Since the Columbine school shootings devastated America in 1999, the event has been attributed to violent video games. In the New York Times blog The Lede, psychiatrist Jerald Block asserts that once their parents cut their gaming privileges, killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went into a “crisis.”
The shooting has also been linked to video game addiction.
In an interview with the New York Daily News, psychologist Dr. David Moore explains that as gamers become more engrossed in their sessions, love for their family can “fade and grow weak.” While video game addiction has been known to reduce empathy, the killers motives arise from several factors.
Psychologist Peter Langman, author of the book Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, states the killers were motivated by “complex combinations of environmental, family, and individual factors.”
With the statistics at hand, it’s not hard to see why the industry avoids mental illness. Yet none of the aforementioned points should excuse the industry from demonizing or making a mockery of these issues.
Will Games Featuring Mental Illness Become Blockbuster Behemoths?
We can’t deny that the goal of the AAA industry is to produce high-quality blockbuster games. As of today, games on mental illness are not blockbuster material, yet. The good news is that if they’re being noticed by the indie industry, the AAA industry will be sure to follow. As mental illness becomes less unsettling, games covering these issues may be in demand as more gamers crave to understand disorders. In order for this to happen, disorders must be portrayed respectfully. Until then, the mentally ill shall be relegated to portrayals as horror monstrosities and clown prince villains.