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The video game industry is responding to the increasing discussion on mental health with games designed with therapy in mind as much as entertainment and art.
In the adventure game Sea of Solitude, the main protagonist—a young woman named Kay—fights to overcome loneliness as she navigates a world fraught with monsters. The young Celtic warrior of Hellblade: Senua‘s Sacrifice deals with psychosis and 2018’s 2D platforming adventure Celeste explores themes of depression and anxiety.
But as an industry, the response isn’t limited to games and their developers. Take This was founded in 2013 following the suicide of video games journalist Matt Hughes, and is a nonprofit that provides support to the game development community and advises on best practices on how to handle the treatment of mental health in gaming and gamer contexts.
For now, the great bulk of games addressing themes of mental health have come from smaller independent developers, presumably because of both the willingness to tackle those themes, but to also address the needs of the market—even if that market might not overtly say so. Orpheus Self Care Entertainment is a start-up that explicitly addresses improving mental health through its games by publishing virtual reality games in which players practice mindfulness and meditation.
But while independent studios have more license to take risks and cover comparatively “unusual” subjects, the aforementioned Sea of Solitude is being released by EA Originals, a collection of independent games published by the larger and more notorious EA. While the parent company has been fighting hard to win back some of its lost repute from cash-grabbing tactics in its Madden, FIFA, and Star Wars Battlefront series (such as through its low-key release of the hit free-to-play shooter Apex Legends), Sea of Solitude could represent a new step towards including games with strong mental health themes in the strategies of big game companies.
As the once hushed discussion about mental health becomes normal conversation, that conversation will inevitably make its way into consumer demands, which will translate into new products—as the dearth of say, mindfulness apps on the market would show. And as more gamers, casual and hardcore alike, start to speak out about the need to address those topics, the industry can respond to the demands of its audience.
As we’ve seen before, video games and their creators will continue and, perhaps you could say, will always struggle to break the medium away from its association with pure escapism, entertainment and baser human instincts like aggression. We wrote before how even Rockstar Games’ AAA title Red Dead Redemption 2 became an unwitting battleground for divisive American politics as it continued to be lauded for its beautiful and rich story world (granted, which is still violent).
But like any art form that can carry a message, be it literature, cinema and photography, video games can be designed with higher purposes in mind for their audiences. Games like This War of Mine: The Little Ones was a survival game, but one that forced the gamer to confront the realities of being in a war-torn country and the ethical decisions they are fortunate to never have to make in real life. Jenova Chen, who created the critically and commercially successful adventure title Journey and who describes himself as a “digital monk,” is hoping to design new games that teach peace, compassion and personal transformation.
Whatever future goals developers have in mind, they are certainly welcome as the landscape of all media continues to incorporate demands for human stories. Where the interactive nature of games—where a player can act on the game—has always been the most alluring and unfortunately most emphasized half of the interaction, we believe there’s room for a segment of games whose explicit goal is to influence rather than just entertain us.
Just like we have everything from teen fiction (that adults read) to classics for literature, and mindless flicks to mind-changing documentaries for cinema, we are overdue for a similar recognition for video games.