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Raising Mental Illness Awareness Via Games

Asylum Jam, taking place this upcoming weekend, is gathering developers to widen the scope of horror.

“Crazy” people are a common horror trope. Insane asylums are often used as settings in the genre. Even gaming’s indie horror darling, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, has “sanity” as a gameplay mechanic.

Outlast was set in an insane asylum, though to be fair, its inmates were largely criminals.

Mental illness, a very real problem, is often used as a way to scare us. Asylum Jam, taking place October 11 through October 13, hopes to encourage designers to think more broadly about horror's potential.

“This jam is to show that you can still create a great horror experience without using inaccurate stereotypes of those who suffer from mental illness, or the institutions that support them in diagnosis and recovery,” reads the jam’s website.

Asylum Jam came into being thanks to Lucy Morris. She read an article on Kotaku by Ian Mahar titled “Nobody Wins When Horror Games Stigmatize Mental Illness” from earlier this year.

“Popular media drive popular beliefs, which lead to reinforcement, adaptation, or abandonment of stigmatic views,” said Mahar.

You don't have to spend much time to come up with horror game or movie that's riffed on mental illness.

Morris was inspired, and it helped she'd organized numerous game jams in the past. She settled on the name Asylum Jam as a way of ironically commenting on the problem at hand.

“There’s a positive way to both hone developer’s skills and to sometimes get a message across or create awareness,” she said.

Morris’ brother works in mental health care, and is training to be a nurse. Her stepfather aids the disabled.

Neverending Nightmares is a recent example of a game designer channeling his mental illness into a video game.

Of course, Morris made it clear she doesn’t think games that have used traditional horror tropes, especially ones culling from mental illness stereotypes, are necessarily bad games. Instead, Morris hopes Asylum Jam encourages developers to come up with new ways of scaring players.

“Horror is usually derived from what we don’t understand,” she said. “There isn’t a lot of mental illness health awareness out of there, and I think that’s partly what has driven it to become a trope. The fact that it’s glorified in horror movies and video games and comics--all media, for so long--it’s just eventually come to this point where we expect to see these things.”

As developers started registering, Morris has heard some interesting stories and motivations for participation. One developer diagnosed with schizophrenia wants to make a game that illustrates what it’s like to live with vivid hallucinations. Another developer hopes to honor a co-worker’s recent suicide.

“Horror is usually derived from what we don’t understand. There isn’t a lot of mental illness health awareness out of there, and I think that’s partly what has driven it to become a trope."

We may be seeing the start of a trend in the horror genre, actually. Retro/Grade developer Matt Gilgenbach recently closed a successful Kickstarter to develop Neverending Nightmares, a game that specifically draws from his lifelong experience with various forms of mental illness.

“I have had quite a few emails from people,” said Morris, “who have said ‘yeah, I have suffered from mental illness, and I’d really like to actually create a horror game, create a game that shows awareness of my illness in particular, and portray it accurately, so people can really understand what we go through.’ I think that’s a really important step forward.”

More than 150 developers have currently committed to being part to Asylum Jam, which doesn’t count the developers showing up to physical locations throughout the world. With those, the number could well exceed 200, and it’s likely many others will spontaneously show up during the weekend. All of the games will be available through the game’s website when it closes Sunday. It's not too late to sign up, if you're interested.

“Game jams are a really positive way to bring awareness to an issue,” said Morris, “because you’re not sitting there saying ‘oh, this is wrong with the industry! But I’m not going to do anything about it.’ Over 150 people are going to come together and do something about it. It’s a positive response--being creative to move away from these tropes and explore.”

Patrick Klepek on Google+
85 Comments
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Edited by Atwa

Now that's crazy talk!

Honestly though, quite interested to see what comes out of this.

Edited by Nekroskop

Awareness is one thing, getting treatment to people who really need it is a governmental issue. Which is honestly more of a problem in America than general knowledge on the issue.

Posted by Outbr3ak

I don't think I ever want to play "General Anxiety Disorder: The Game" or "Crushing Depression". Living them can be MORE than enough, thanks.

Posted by matti00

I think games are a great way to address issues like this, I hope to see more of it. Good on them, I hope it goes well.

Posted by mintyice

@outbr3ak: Isn't Cart Life basically crushing depression the game?

Posted by Weatherking

This speaks to me on all possible levels, I love horror, I am very interested in mental illness as well as suffering from it, and I can and have made game-jam level games, one about social anxiety in fact. Sadly because of the state of my current mental health I have major problems actually working on something and not feeling like shit about what I make, so I probably won't take part in something like this, the potential for shitty anxiety is to much for me to bear at this particular point of my existence.

Looking forward to seeing what people put out anyway, spreading awareness in general is so great, good lucks to everyone taking part in this.

Posted by MurderSlingshot

I'm currently a psychology major and I have to hand it to Patrick, this is a great article. It always makes me angry when I'm playing a game and they have characters with mental illnesses and either portray them with the bare minimum of understanding or just flat out incorrectly. I'm really happy to see people trying to inform others.

Posted by Veektarius

I don't know if misrepresenting 'asylums' is actually a problem in games. Obviously conditions have improved, but as far as treatment in times gone by is concerned, it'd be hard to overstate how horrible the conditions were, and I think most games that use an asylum setting do so from a historical perspective. Even as late as the 1970s, I don't think One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest was considered too gross an overstatement.

Edited by bassman2112

I'm actually in the process of developing a game that's all about depression. Seeing as I'm not a spectacular programmer or visual artist, this one-person team I'm running makes the game's progress move along really slowly - which means I probably won't be participating in this jam; but I can't wait to see what comes out of it!

Posted by LikeaSsur

As long as they're fun.

Edited by JasonR86

I like the intention of this game jam. But in the end you're still trying to scare people with mental illness. It's hard to raise the level of empathy shown regarding mental illness when at the same time your scaring people with it. I guess it's hard for me to imagine how an audience will empathize when freaked out. But I think games certainly could raise awareness for mental illness. I just don't think the genre should be horror. But I appreciate the intent.

Posted by mbr2

As long as they're fun.

Video games are about fun. All I want is fun funny funfun. Have "fun" when you inevitably fall into depression.

Posted by AcidBrandon18

I thought for a second that the article was titled "Raising awareness for Vita games". lol

Edited by Brendan

Interesting idea. Media usually treats those suffering form mental illness as dangerous "others" so some empathy generating experiences could only be a good thing. As a side note, I really liked Take Shelter, a movie starring Michael Shannon, for its portrayal of a man beginning to suffer what may be mental illness. It ends on a more thriller focused note but the majority of it is very interesting.

Posted by Hitchenson

I've got a soup of disorders and am on a number of meds, including Lithium - the whole "mental" thing or misinformed stereotypes in games/tele etc. has never bothered me one iota. Still, awareness is always a good thing!

Posted by MikeLemmer

@jasonr86 said:

I like the intention of this game jam. But in the end you're still trying to scare people with mental illness. It's hard to raise the level of empathy shown regarding mental illness when at the same time your scaring people with it. I guess it's hard for me to imagine how an audience will empathize when freaked out. But I think games certainly could raise awareness for mental illness. I just don't think the genre should be horror. But I appreciate the intent.

In most other games, the terror's directed against the mentally ill. This is a jam about the terror of being mentally ill, of having one foot in the sane, real world and another foot in a world you know is wrong & unreal but just can't let go of. It helps by showing the crap the mentally ill deal with internally and how it explains their actions in real life.

Most "crazy" people in video games are used as either enemies or comic relief. There's no portrayals of someone desperately trying to live a normal life despite their own brain fighting them.

Edited by JasonR86

@mikelemmer:

But it's just as stigmatizing either way. As a therapist myself, I try to build within clients a sense of normalcy. That they are individuals dealing with problems that they can overcome because they are bigger then their symptoms. That they aren't 'crazy' they are normal people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Highlighting the scariness of symptoms just creates a wider gap between the arbitrary definitions for the labels 'normal' and 'abnormal'.

Like I said, I appreciate the intention but, in practice, I'm not sure this game jam is doing what they are intending.

Edited by SaturdayNightSpecials

I don't like her finger-wagging attitude very much, but I do agree that (a) mental illness could be used in more interesting ways in games, and (b) spooky asylums are played the fuck out.

Posted by dr_mantas

Next up: is "war" and "conflict" of the modern age portrayed accurately in "action" games? A soldier back from deployment says: "kinda not really". More news at 11.

Posted by LikeaSsur

@mbr2 said:

@likeassur said:

As long as they're fun.

Video games are about fun. All I want is fun funny funfun. Have "fun" when you inevitably fall into depression.

Excuse me, but please don't assume to know anything about my situation or where I'm coming from.

Edited by AssInAss

Depression Quest is the first game I thought of where you can empathise with someone who has a mental illness, even if it's not a horror game. Still one of the most important games in a while, that everyone should play.

It's FREE and should only take you an hour. Danny O'Dwyer (Gamespot) did a feature based off that game.

Edited by Chuddy

soon, video games will be like tumblr, a big wasteland of moral finger waving. Look at PAX.

Edited by Blister

@jasonr86: Your clients don't sound mentally ill, to be honest. Someone with a mood or anxiety disorder is not normal and they can not overcome their issues(not even mentioning more debilitating things like Autism, Schizophrenia, seizures) only learn to live with them. They physically have hormonal imbalances in their brain that can not be cured and only with continuing treatment, that includes cognitive therapy and medication, the majority of the effects of a mental disorder can be treated.

But it is a struggle for most, because it's important they understand they can't be cured or else risk a horrible cycle of thinking they're cured or better and stopping treatment, inevitably leading to losing large amounts of progress.

It's as much about education of others as the patient, there is a ton of misinformation out there and a properly educated client can easily be their own advocate against discrimination.

Posted by sravankb

I will only play these games if they provide some sort of solution to the problem; I don't care for a simple "addressing the issue" angle on the thing.

It doesn't have to explicitly explain how to solve it, but if it's just an expression of how a depressed person feels to the general public, I couldn't care less. I have enough of that shit in my life to actively try and experience it through my entertainment.

Edited by JasonR86

@blister:

I do psychotherapy. The main goal for me is to help someone live with their disorder. I do this in a lot of ways and one of my main techniques is creating normalcy. I see no therapeutic benefit in telling someone they are abnormal and different from us 'normals'. I say 'overcome' rather then 'live with' because I want my clients to be strong and not victims. Trust me dude, I work with a lot of people and have diagnosed a lot of disorders. Not that I should be considered more right then you or not in this matter. But please don't insinuate about my clients and my work. Plus I'm just stating an opinion on how I consider mental health disorders from my perspective. Nothing more.

Posted by daltimond

As someone with schizoaffective disorder and as someone who has been to mental hospitals several times, I am interested in how anyone who doesnt have a mental illness or has spent time in a mental hospital could accurately portray either of them.

Edited by FaPaThY

What, are there no other, less stereotypical, genres that can be used to bring 'awareness' to mental illness? Unless you're trying to make me more afraid of crazy people than I already am, this all just seems exploitative and an excuse to get a Game Jam together. Also, with how niche psychological horror games are, I don't see this having that much an affect, assuming the actual goal is really to raise awareness. Not that I even think this is a serious problem to begin with.

But whatever. Maybe I'm just tired of all of these groups wanting to raise awareness about their issues through games, as if gamers are the only ignorant people out there. At some point, that just feels patronizing. At least they aren't crying to developers to change their game to address the issues though, like some groups, so that's a plus I guess.

Posted by CornBREDX

I don't think its as big a "problem" as she says. There are many horror movies and games that don't have mental illness involved.

Keeping this to games: Silent Hill 1, 2, and 3. Clocktower. Fatal Frame. Clive Barkers Undying. Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines (while not inherently a horror game, it has some levels that are considered some of the best scares in a game ever), Bioshock. These are games a lot of people will know by name alone. They are horror and have nothing to do with mental illness.

Now that I think of it, I'm struggling to come up with any game that uses mental illness as a scare tactic. The only thing I can come up with is Outlast, and the mental illness in that is really brought on by the experimentation being done to them and mainly they are all criminals to begin with. Amnesia used a sanity meter much like Eternal Darkness and Call of Cthulhu but I wouldn't really call that portrayal of mental illness one way or another. It's more of an attempt to define the horrors that HP Lovecraft wrote about in a way we can visually see, as he writes them in a way that suggests even looking upon them can drive someone insane or cause you to kill yourself in sheer terror.

I'm sure there are games that do, not even necessarily horror games (its more common to see someone with a mental illness in a non horror game in my experience- for example Spec Ops the Line which has probably the best portrayal of PTSD I have ever seen especially in a video game), but I feel this game jam kind of presents a "problem" in a light that isn't really a problem.

That being said I do agree with the thought of wanting to share what it's like. Suffering from my own issues I can relate to something like that. I just think the comment of this jam that "Video game horror uses mental illness as a trope far too often" is a bit over zealous.

Spreading awareness is great, but lets not pretend there's a problem when there isn't.

Posted by Tomba_be

I like this persons attitude. Instead of demonizing the games she doesn't like the makers point of view of, she actually goes ahead and tries to get games made from another perspective. Something the whole misogyny crowd can learn a thing or two from.

That said, I think being scared of mental illness is quite normal. A lot of people are less afraid of death than losing their mind. Being confronted with that will therefore scare most people.

Posted by l4wd0g

CA solution to mental illness was simple. Eugenics. They never apologized or reconciled (in anyway) to those they sterilized or their families.

Anyway, here is my issue,

“This jam is to show that you can still create a great horror experience without using inaccurate stereotypes of those who suffer from mental illness, or the institutions that support them in diagnosis and recovery,”

This is the ambiguity fallacy. The conclusion assumes a much better understanding than is suggested in the premise, therefore we have the ambiguity fallacy.

Posted by l4wd0g

@tomba_be said:

I like this persons attitude. Instead of demonizing the games she doesn't like the makers point of view of, she actually goes ahead and tries to get games made from another perspective. Something the whole misogyny crowd can learn a thing or two from.

That said, I think being scared of mental illness is quite normal. A lot of people are less afraid of death than losing their mind. Being confronted with that will therefore scare most people.

that is pretty neat.

Posted by Nation764

Second paragraph. Misspelling. Looks like things haven't changed since the last Patrick article I read several months ago.

Posted by patrickklepek

Second paragraph. Misspelling. Looks like things haven't changed since the last Patrick article I read several months ago.

u are a true friend

Staff
Edited by toddtodd

I'm kind of tired of these sorts of things. I can only speak for myself but I don't like telling people that I'm bipolar. I don't tell them that I've been to a psychiatric ward because its very personal. I also hate that mental illness always seems to be portrayed as a crippling disease from those who suffer from it. It isn't ideal but I genuinely feel that some people simply feel sorry for me, or they change their tone and vocabulary if the discover I'm bipolar they avoid act differently in fear of my triggering a depressive or manic state. If this makes people understand then that is great. I just don't understand how creating a horror game to scare people can educate them or help them understand mental illness. It seems counter intuitive and has a large chance of fueling their fear of mental illness, leaving them afraid to address mentally ill people in the same manner they would address anyone else.

I sincerely hope that this can create some change in peoples perception of the mentally ill. If this works it will be great. If it encourages people to address me differently from others I feel it would do more harm than good. I'd like to receive the same treatment others do. This is going to be a very challenging thing to portray in a game, especially in a horror game.

Edited by TowerSixteen

Hey just a heads up? There's still a lot of stigma to mental illness, and the article image kinda plays into it rather strongly. Too many people are too ashamed of that kinda thing, and using a person in a white room tied to a bed as a visual shorthand for "Mental Illness"....well, people don't admit or talk about illnesses sometimes BECAUSE that's the image it unfortunately invokes. Just some gentle criticism.

Edited by mithical

Part of an accurate portrayal of mental illness means showing a mentally ill person isn't someone to be afraid of. Making games that associate the mentally ill with horror only seems to undermine their purpose.

Besides, isn't the horror genre somewhat defined by taking something everyone knows and exaggerating parts of it, twisting it into something uncomfortable? Nobody is raising awareness of body image in horror games because the Slenderman is an inaccurate portrayal of the human body. The difference is it's obvious how inaccurate it is; Everyone sees accurate examples every day. The problem isn't really with how mental health is portrayed in horror. The problem is with how mental health is portrayed everywhere else.

I think a better idea would be to make games of all genres but horror that accurately portray mental illness. Give others a counterbalance to the extremes depicted in horror, instead of taking away what horror does best; Exaggerating and deforming the things we know to unsettle us.

Edit: The header image is a perfect example of why this is misguided. It's not an accurate portrayal of what mental illness is. But it is disturbing, possibly something right out of a horror game or movie. You can't really have it both ways.

Edited by dvorak

Yeah associating mental illness with horror and scary images is a great idea...

Are you fucking stupid? If you have been following any of the current issues regarding mental illness, you would know that this is precisely the thing mental health non-profit groups are trying to avoid.

Psychopathy, and Schizophrenia in particular are already painted in a really negative light due to a long history of horror films attached to them. It makes it incredibly hard for those people to mention their illness without making others afraid or confused when they find out. Being afraid to talk about your illness is the biggest reason issues go untreated.

Once again Patrick, you fucked up with regard to mental illness, due to ignorance. Get a fucking clue, and just stop.

Edited by Deusoma

Speaking as a man who has struggled with mental illness in the past, this is inventing a problem where a problem doesn't exist, but their hearts are in the right place, so I wish the best of luck to them. :-)

Posted by zFUBARz

Ahh cool, I was wondering if you got my Tumblr message.

@jasonr86 You know I respect your opinion on these matters as we've discussed many times, but I see something like this as a net positive, if enough of the games are interesting, have a good variety of perspectives, show the scary sides, the interesting sides, and hell the fun sides of mental illness as a package it could be pretty neat. I wouldn't necessarily expect to get something ground breaking from 48 hours of development, but I think it can still be worthwhile. I mean what other medium has the potential to really get across the feeling/emotion of the range of problems we face, from the criminally insane, the manic drug induced schizophrenic, to the depressed 50 year old mother of three that has so much anxiety she's lost her job and her family is confused and scared and about to abandon her.

My point is there's a lot to go on, and if they use all of it, it could be cool. And given the awesome games we've been getting in the last year or so, Gone Home, Neverending Nightmares, Braid. Not to mention the huge amount of Twine based games, I think the industry might be ready to start tackling something like this responsibly.

@blister Dude first off you're spouting some misinformation there, and as Jason said there are different types of therapy, and different techniques will work better or worse for every patient His technique probably works well for the majority of his patients, and the ones who don't benefit, well any good doctor will be the first to tell you if it's a bad fit and you should see somebody else. So yeah take it easy,

Edited by patrickklepek

@towersixteen said:

Hey just a heads up? There's still a lot of stigma to mental illness, and the article image kinda plays into it rather strongly. Too many people are too ashamed of that kinda thing, and using a person in a white room tied to a bed as a visual shorthand for "Mental Illness"....well, people don't admit or talk about illnesses sometimes BECAUSE that's the image it unfortunately invokes. Just some gentle criticism.

The header image is meant to be, in line with the jam's name, ironic and about the problems the jam is hoping to illuminate through its games. The disagreements with Morris' perspectives are noted, but they are also hers. She's the one running the jam.

Staff
Posted by Rebel_Scum

I remember playing a free game earlier this year where you play as a black dot on a white background. It has a vertical scroll background with other black dots scrolling from top to bottom that move away from you if you try to touch them. At first I thought it was a game about loneliness/depression (Spoiler for a two minute game incoming) It goes on for about two minutes before the screen fades and it displays some message about problems/depression in Korea.

It was a pretty surreal experience playing it. Kind of like when you watch a play with no talking. The actions and music speak louder. Does anyone know the game I'm talking about because I can't find it on google anymore.

Posted by JasonR86

@zfubarz:

My only real concern is the genre. I think another genre, like an adventure game, would have been a better fit with less of a chance to stigmatize. But this is a snap judgement and honestly whenever I see anything relating to mental health not in a scientific journal I kind of cringe an expect the worst which really isn't fair. I hope something cool comes from the jam. And I really do appreciate what they are trying to do.

Posted by patrickklepek

I remember playing a free game earlier this year where you play as a black dot on a white background. It has a vertical scroll background with other black dots scrolling from top to bottom that move away from you if you try to touch them. At first I thought it was a game about loneliness/depression (Spoiler for a two minute game incoming) It goes on for about two minutes before the screen fades and it displays some message about problems/depression in Korea.

It was a pretty surreal experience playing it. Kind of like when you watch a play with no talking. The actions and music speak louder. Does anyone know the game I'm talking about because I can't find it on google anymore.

Is it Freedom Bridge? http://www.necessarygames.com/my-games/freedom-bridge

Staff
Posted by Rebel_Scum
Edited by Spoonman671

But I'm already aware of mental illness.

Posted by cikame

I think there's a difference between characters in games acting strangely, like Angela or Eddie in Silent Hill 2, and characters who represent a known mental illness. I can't actually think of any for the latter except in Max Payne 2 when in a dream state he witnesses mentally disturbed versions of himself.

I could understand being annoyed by the use of mental illness in comedy, of which i think is kind of cheap, but unless i've managed to miss alot of it video games have been pretty sensible about mental illness.
The patients in Outlast are all victims of the secret experiments at the hospital, not really the same thing as actual mental illness.

Edited by YummyTreeSap

I don't think that psychiatric hospitals etc. are necessarily a stigma against mental illness. You don't even have to go back all that far back in time (and shit, there have even been recent cases) to where the goings on in those places were, for lack of a better phrase, pretty fucked up. I think when horror uses that setting it's playing more on that fact more than mental illness itself being something to be afraid of (certainly not saying that that doesn't happen, though).

Anyway, I think some of you are missing the point. I get why some of you are sort of hung up on the genre, but from what it sounds, they're trying to go about it in a different way. Using already-established tropes (i.e. mental illnesses in horror) and twisting them a bit to combat those very same tropes, etc. The common theme re mental illness in horror media is along the lines of equating the actual person with mental illness as being unsettling or a threat or what have you. This game jam seems to be making an attempt to make the illnesses themselves the scary part, not the people who have them. That's a pretty significant distinction, I think, and one certainly worth digging into. If any of these games contribute to humanizing the subjects of mental illness and through humanity's general horror of the unknown/-experienced, give the general user a glimpse, as you will, at what it can be like to endure a mental illness, then they've done their job well.

Edited by velocinox

Please don't do this.

Mental illness is already associated with institutionalization and 'crazy'.

This attitude is what makes people afraid of it. It's a prevalent belief that mental illness is automatically severe insanity. Images of restraints and asylums do not help.

Mental illness is battled at a much earlier stage. Mental health is often as simple as being happy. (Though always being happy is not the goal of mental health.) Prolonged unhappiness is the real face of mental illness and can be treated. Treating it this early and ADMITTING IT, allows a prevention of severe mental illnesses.

In physical health care terms, it's like we ignore the pain in our shoulder and the numbness in our arm because it's not really an illness, only when we have the full blown heart attack is it an illness and treatable.

If we approached mental illness with the same eye towards prevention as we do physical health care we could end a lot of the things we think we have to just live with, like much of the violent crime, and suicides, all the way down to something as simple as internet cruelty and harassment.

Sorry for the soapbox and I'm not trying to flame anyone. I just think we could really improve everyone's quality of life if we approach mental health care like we approach physical health care, and we stop immediately thinking of it as being 'crazy'.

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