Breaking The Barriers, A Look At Mental Health Stigma In Video Games

September 29, 2018

With the world trudging toward the end of 2018, the stigma surrounding mental health is a topic flooding the media and being thrown into the lime light as if some new modern atrocity. This unfortunately couldn't be further from the truth, this ongoing issue has been occurring for almost as long as humans have settled in groups. (With a few moments in history that are brighter and darker then others)

Fun fact; From the 12th - 14th century, those who were blind were often employed to work the tread wheel cranes on castles as they wouldn't fear the rising height as they loomed over the walls.


The study of mental health is still in its early stages of affirmation and with one of the darkest periods of institutionalization only ending 30 years ago (approx). As people we tend to fear those things in the world we least understand, dating back to our superstitious ancestors (and our superstitious moderns for that matter.)  From horror movies that love to use mental illness as the source of derangement for the slasher or "mental institutions" as the setting to a poorly developed system on educating people on the actual disease or disorder. I digress, its not difficult to understand where the stigma comes from. 

Being one of the largest mediums for entertainment used  by both students and adults alike, video game developers find themselves, more often the not, affecting public opinions and the knowledge base about social issues (and non-issues).

Now some developers are taking to the cause, wanting to have a positive impact on how we view and treat those with mental illness.


As an advocate myself for those who struggle with mental health and one who happens to come with their own slew of labels, I wanted to give you two very different examples of the games/apps that tackle this idea and attempt to break some of the social barriers those with mental health issues face without bastardizing the individuals associated. 


Depression Quest

A simple text adventure game Depression Quest tasks players with making it through their days as someone suffering with depression. Through an array of choices based on day to day occurrences, players must do their best to maintain their social circle, keep employment, and otherwise make it through the day. Status descriptions represent the impact of whether or not they’re speaking to a therapist, on medication in hopes of stabilizing, or currently being hit by their depression. Due to their illness, however, the player’s choices become devastatingly limited as the game continues. Eventually leaving you with a single option to proceed regardless of the consequences. Depression Quest can be a educating, painful and frustrating experience, but also an accurate depiction of some of the daily struggles those with depression face when compared with many examples offered in the media today.



"It begins with Senua’s voices ushering me along as a witness to her trials. Senua even acknowledges the player at times. Getting such a personal, front row seat didn’t just make me empathetic. It put me in her shoes. Playing this game is beyond captivating if, like me, you’re someone that knows the manipulative, abusive, and painful hold of mental illness. There wasn’t a single horror trope, cliché, or problematic portrayal in sight. Every detail resonated without breaking me out of the intimate immersion. Senua’s realistically human.


This game was successful without the typical norms because of the ways it differed and how it isolated no one. While the game is a dark fantasy, the only horror elements there are lie in the tight situations and the traumas of her past. It is also implied that this Nordic world of hers is no hallucination. She doesn’t “wake up” in our reality having slaughtered a ton of people instead of monsters. This world of mythos is real and not all in her mind. While her voices are slightly a game mechanic, they are helpful and well done. The voices guide you as you fight for your life. It metaphorically shows how mental illness (while damaging) originates from your mind trying to protect you. There are no tropes that surround Senua and, most importantly, she is NOT violent. Instead of harming the person that abused her, she only unsheathes her sword to keep them at a distance. She never even attacks the people that harass her for believing shes evil. She kills zero humans and I can’t stress enough how important that is.


As for being a game for all gamers, Senua’s journey is obviously more than just the battle against her darkness. By avoiding the problematic norms, they kept her in the realm of fantasy as a warrior that also happens to suffer from psychosis. For a story that revolves around mental illness, this is exceptionally unique. It makes it a game for gamers tired of the same old things. On top of that, there is the gameplay. The game play difficulty and strict death mechanic were actually the most talked about aspects of the game early on. Some might say that could isolate gamers, especially mentally ill ones, but I believe the opposite."

(Admittedly I haven't had the oppurtunity to play this but have quoted Samantha Herrera of Comics verse)


Removing the stigma around mental health is a massive undertaking that will undoubtedly be in progress for far longer then I'll be around, but tolerance for those in need shouldn't be a question. I'm grateful to all the developers listed above for their work and though were still a long way from open communication in regards to all the issues surrounding mental health, the stigma can only be reduced through dialog and action.


As Always, Just An Opinion; 


Interested in reading more, check out 5 Games That Tackle Mental Health, on Game Informer



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