I am not going to pretend I have a degree in psychology in this post (although my partner is doing a degree in psychology, so I do like to think I know a decent amount of stuff); this is going to be a sincere post about a very serious topic. I have several mental illnesses, a lot of which are highly misrepresented in all kinds of media. Right now, there is a movement to normalise and decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness. So, the question I will be discussing today is if putting mental illness in media, such as video games where the player gets to control the character, is a good way to attempt to end the negative stigma surrounding mental illness.
I am just one person. I will be focusing on my own mental illnesses because that is what I know. I never wanted this to be a place to talk about mental illness from a personal standpoint, so this is not that type of post. I am purely going to be talking about representation in media, if it is harmful or not, and what can be improved in future games. This is all obviously my opinion, but since I have these illnesses and communicate with others who have similar illnesses, I feel confident in my judgement. For reference, I have depressive and anxiety disorder, psychosis, and the one that we’re going to be talking about in a lot more detail, dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder.
So, first of all, let us talk about one amazing example that I have seen in video games that I’ve talked about before: Josh from Until Dawn. I cannot write this post without bringing him up because you can tell that the writers really did their research for that game. For those who have not played Until Dawn, or seen it on YouTube, or read my last blog post on it (I will link it at the end), there is a scene in Until Dawn where the player gets to witness Josh’s hallucinations. Although somewhat dramatised (although it is also realistic as Josh’s mental health is particularly bad in this scene), the scene gives the audience a great insight into what it is like to experience auditory and visual hallucinations. It is terrifying, and it throws it in the player’s face that Josh is not well. Josh is very clearly sick, and this scene makes it clearer than any other scene could have. It does not make him seem ‘crazy’ as it would have if the player were not able to see the hallucinations. It makes him seem scared because he is, and he has every right to be.
Now, let us discuss the negative side of putting mental illness in video games for a little bit. For this, I am going to be using the example of dissociative identity disorder. I will include a link to a great YouTube channel if you want to know more about the illness itself, but I’ll do a brief summary because it is important you understand. Dissociative identity disorder is a mental illness which is caused by childhood trauma. It creates other ‘personalities’, or ‘alters’ as the DID community refers to them, in order to cope with the trauma. Now, my personal experience of telling people that I have this is them saying “oh that’s cool” or “I could do with that”. This is harmful. To those with this illness, it is basically invalidating their mental illness. These people went through trauma in their childhood. They have repressed memories, confusion, and typically post-traumatic stress disorder along with this. Having an illness is never fun. Telling someone that their illness is “cool” or “would be handy” is not okay in the slightest. Dissociative identity disorder is so much more than just switching personalities. It’s not understanding, not knowing, being confused most of the time. There is so much more to it than an average game could show. The main issue with mental illness being in media like video games is that it is difficult to show the full picture.
That is what makes the scene from Until Dawn so good. It does show the full picture. So, the idea that I am putting forward is that mental illness should be in games if the full picture is shown, and only then.
There is also an issue with normalising mental illnesses to the point where it becomes what seems to be a joke, or even when the mental illness becomes an adjective. For example, someone saying “I’m so OCD” because they like their coloured pencils in a certain order, or “I’m so depressed” when they are feeling sad. Obviously, there is an issue of someone finding out about a mental illness and faking it to get some kind of attention (the recent issue with Trisha Paytas comes to mind immediately). However, it is important for me to state that you do not know what is going on in someone’s mind, and unless you are their doctor, you should have no opinion on their mental health.
I have gone back and forth, over and over again, on whether or not dissociative identity disorder should get more representation in media. This has been a long-debated issue. Mental illness of all kind is always a touchy subject. Everyone experiences it differently. For example, someone might experience depression differently compared to someone else. The issue with representation in media is that, as a writer/director/designer, you have two groups of people that you need to consider seriously: your current audience, and then the people with the mental illness. The media still has to be entertaining, so plenty of the people in charge of these decisions fail to consider the thoughts and feelings of the latter group.
A small example that I can think of on the spot is the split second that dissociative identity disorder is brought up in Persona 5. If you cannot remember it, I do not blame you. Why? Because it wasn’t. Now, please bear in mind that this is my favourite game. In this game, dissociative identity disorder is referred to as ‘multiple personality disorder’, which is an old term that has not been used for decades and can rather upset people with dissociative identity disorder. Not only that, but Persona 5 misinforms people about dissociative identity disorder. It states that alters cannot be different genders and ages, which is untrue. This is an example of including mental illness in video games is bad, because it uses old terms and misinforms the audience of the mental illness. This is worsened further because they had the chance to fix it during Persona 5 Royal, but the scene is not corrected.
You see, video games are unique to other types of media because it is interactive. You are able to play as the character. You can experience life as they see it. That is why I love it so much. They can be educational and fun at the same time. In my opinion, putting mental illness in video games can be a good thing. However, if you do as little as mention a mental illness in a video game, you should be doing your research on the subject. There are so many people on the planet who suffer daily with mental illness. Since it is so stigmatised, you need to be informative and accurate while informing your audience about the mental illness. If your main character has a mental illness, it becomes even more important to do serious research on the subject as so many people experience it and people are obviously going to play the game as the character and experience it through the game.
Leave your thoughts and feelings in the comments. If you have any questions, let me know.
Until Dawn Mental Health Post:
Good YouTube channel to learn about Dissociative Identity Disorder: