As It Turns Out, Games Aren’t Great at Depicting Mental Health Issues

Image credit: Pawel Kadysz

“Has anybody spawned in a mental hospital and had something good happen to them?” was a rhetorical question asked by Kelli Dunlap during her PAX East talk last week, and it’s a good question. In reality, a lot of good happens when we receive treatment for mental health issues. In games, that treatment is usually used as set dressing for horror games.

The Daily Dot covered Dunlap’s full talk, which breaks down the most common mental health tropes employed in games. There are a few positive exceptions, but the available representations generally make up a pretty grim selection.

Breaking down into recognizable tropes the way film and television depict the mentally ill isn’t difficult. There’s plenty of scholarship on the topic, thousands of movies and shows to look at for examples. When Dunlap went looking for scholarly work on how video games depict the mentally ill, however, she found only a single paper in a peer-reviewed journal, and decided to do some informal investigation to fill the gap.

Dunlap took a list of 39 different games that dealt with issues of mental illness or included mentally ill characters, working from her own experience as a gamer and from examples submitted by friends and family. She then broke her study down by characters, environments, and abstract depictions of mental illness itself.

The results were not encouraging.


As the article goes on to explain, she found violent characters, terrifying environments, and sanity mechanics that suggest that mental health is a depletable resource, one that will make you go crazy if you let it run out.

The media we consume helps shape our world view, and if all of it says that people with mental health issues are dangerous, unstable individuals who are likely to commit violent acts, that only contributes to stigma.

All the more reason to celebrate the games that do get it right, because they’re currently few and far between.

[The Daily Dot]
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