Over the decades since the inception of the video game medium, the question of if games contribute to anger or violence has been a hot topic. I’m not here today to argue whether or not that is true, but instead to bring attention to how games can positively influence the gamer.
While playing a recent preview of Detroit: Become Human at PSX 2017, I was faced with a bold level that was shown in its most recent trailer that dug up controversy with its intense domestic abuse-related content. Having experienced similar moments in my own life, it gave me a healthy but emotional outlet to deal with personal matters. This got me thinking on the importance of games like Detroit handling its sensitive issues with care and how this can actually be therapeutic for gamers playing them.
Interactivity is Key
You can easily argue that video games are the best form of entertainment due to interactivity, a feature unique only to this medium. That same interactivity is so key to providing an outlet for gamers dealing with various issues like depression, mental health, disorders, abuse, bereavement and more.
In our day-to-day lives we are bound by the limits of reality, but games aren’t. At any moment, you can boot up your system of choice and immerse yourself in a brand new world of your choosing. The sheer variance of gameplay and visual styles are uncanny, something that movies and even books can’t offer.
Better yet, each button you press and every decision you make is directly reflected throughout the world you’re in. Interaction is at the foundation of what a game is and the reason why it can be far more therapeutic than a movie, TV show or book could ever be. However, that alone isn’t what creates a healing experience.
Escaping to Another World
I previously worked with the inner city children of Los Angeles for over four years. In that time, I saw kids dealing with just about every issue imaginable, but no matter what the problem was, I could hand them a controller at our after-school program and they would completely escape even if it was for just that brief period of time.
Escapism is one of the most important ways a game can be therapy for a person. That interactivity mentioned before demands your attention and time, pulling you away from the problems you are facing and providing you with more positive emotions; joy, peace, and excitement to name a few. Even the toughest games like Dark Souls or Cuphead can produce positive results through your own efforts.
I’ve sat beside countless people smiling with delight as we played Super Smash Bros. when just yesterday they were devastated by the death of a loved one in a local shooting. I remember one Saturday in particular as I sat next to a young eight year old boy in the notoriously violent Watts neighborhood in LA. We took turns on his tablet trying to survive in Five Nights at Freddy’s.
It was an odd game to play with a child, but for a brief couple of hours, it wasn’t about anything except surviving the night against those Chuck E. Cheese-like monstrosities. There was laughter after a jump scare, elation at a close escape, and pure joy that we experienced.
If you had been there and seen what simply playing a game could do for his mental health, you would have never guessed that his father had been shot and killed by a gang just a few weeks earlier. We continued that routine for months, throwing in other games like Pokemon and Clash of Clans, and bonding along the way. Through these games, we developed a relationship in which he could confide his problem to me at a pivotal moment in his life.
When I left a few years later, he was a completely different kid who deeply cared about school, his future, and of course, video games. There is power in escapism, and it’s something that developers should never forget when creating any game.
A Sense of Agency
Video games enabling a sense of escapism is well-documented, but something that developers a lot of times don’t understand is the sense of agency. Many times, I’ve come across a game that killed off a character or depicted a controversial issue like rape or abuse simply for the shock value. That doesn’t help anyone.
There are a couple of games from this year that poorly handle sensitive issues, and serve as examples of what not to do regarding mental disorders and the like. Doki Doki Literature Club is a harrowing experience that has some brilliant twists at times, but there is no doubt that it exists mostly for shock value.
Without verging into spoilers territory each brutal scene that it depicts is unnecessarily violent and pretty unintelligent in execution. Though the game does give warning ahead of time, it glorifies issues like depression for the purpose of YouTube reaction videos rather than bringing much-needed attention to them.
Another is, ironically, our game of the year: Persona 5. While it may be an amazing JRPG experience, its writing certainly needs some work. It sets up all of the right emotional beats, from the anti-social outcast to the abused artist, but it never truly follows up on them.
It establishes that those issues exist, but it doesn’t do anything to show the player how to overcome their own personal ones. Instead, the Phantom Thieves show up and magically steal away all of their bad emotions. This is understandable considering the premise of Persona 5, but at least following up on each character’s issues and seeing how they handle them beyond their respective chapter could have helped players dealing with similar problems.
However, what can help someone that has experienced a similar situation is when the game handles the issue with care, understanding what the affected player needs. For many players, having agency or control is exactly that. After all, purpose is powerful. I experienced this in 2017 with a few games like Detroit and Hellblade.
My time with Detroit resonated with me strongly, because it gave me context, established a believable domestic abuse scenario, and then put the choices in front of me for what happened next. Suddenly, I had control over a situation that was similar to one I had no control over in real life.
The same can be said for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Playing as the titular Senua is quite unlike any other experience I’ve had with a game. It doesn’t just tell you that she is dealing with mental issues; it gives you the same disorder she has for the duration of the short experience. When played with headphones, you constantly hear her demons all around you and the game forces you to push forward regardless, or give up and shut it off.
It’s a game that’s certainly not for everyone, but leaves those who do play it changed by the time the credits roll. It has the ability to teach so much to the player, causing real change that doesn’t end when you turn off the TV. With reportedly more than 18% of adults and 25% of children affected by mental disorders and other issues, it’s worth publishers and developers taking the time to handle these themes with care.
Games aren’t the cure for problems like abuse, mental disorders, depression, anxiety, disability, death and the like, but they can provide a healing experience unlike anything else. Unless you have the gaming disorder, of course. It’s my hope that more titles like Detroit, Hellblade, Journey, To the Moon, Ni no Kuni, 999 and Life is Strange release.