It goes without saying that the stigma of mental health is a hot topic, not only in gaming, but society at large. Anxiety, depression, PTSD, bullying, and other less obvious issues that negatively impact mental health are being more thoroughly examined and treated with help offerings ranging from support groups, to pharmaceuticals, to entire laws being reexamined and changed. In fact, the month of May has been officially recognized in the United States as Mental Awareness Month since 1949, and is a month dedicated to breaking the stigma “associated with mental health disorders by sharing stories to inspire those facing similar challenges.” The video game industry has followed the same societal trajectory by opening up and using the artistic element of its medium to convey stories of mental health disorders in numerous titles. However, the industry itself faces self-imposed issues related to mental health resulting from numerous reports of workplace toxicity; a concern that needs to be addressed in a similarly transparent and delicate manner.
Creating Beauty Amongst Tragedy
The topic of mental health disorder is never one to be taken lightly, even in the fictitious world of most video game narratives. Sea of Solitude, from developer Jo-Mei and published by Electronic Arts (under the indie developer-centric moniker, EA Originals), tackles the issues of depression, loneliness, and hopelessness by personifying each disorder as giant, monstrous creatures that the player-controlled protagonist must face while navigating the deep and oft-treacherous waters of a flooded, desolate world, all in an effort to avoid “drowning” from the weight of it all.
The beautifully constructed story features some chapters that are pretty tough to play through, specifically the ones touching on the subject of bullying, which is an occurrence that plays a huge role in establishing early mental health disorders in children and young adults, and one that needs to end sooner, rather than later.
Of course, this is easier said than done, especially considering the anonymity of the Internet coupled with the Twitch streamer and YouTuber culture of today. Although “Professional Streamer/YouTuber” is now a role that many young people aspire to achieve, many are unaware of (or selectively choose to ignore) the pitfalls that await them with the troll-laden nature of the comments section in whatever social media platform they are using. In addition, social media, in general, is a never-ending highlight reel of people, places, and things being filtered at their very best. Most social media influencers aren’t posting pictures of their bad days, which paints a dangerously idyllic and misleading picture for their swarms of young and impressionable followers.
This can most recently be seen with the untimely passing of popular YouTube streamer, Desmond Amofah - aka Etika - who took his own life after posting a video, in which he discussed his battle with mental illness. Desmond touched on the topic of social media’s impact on himself, stating, “It can give you an image of what you want your life to be and get blown completely out of proportion," in addition to, "It consumed me." Hopefully, future generations of streamers and YouTubers will heed the warnings of the negative aspects of being an on-screen personality from those who have experienced it first-hand.
We regret to inform that Desmond Amofah aka Etika has been found deceased. https://t.co/sedwZZxglw— NYPD NEWS (@NYPDnews) June 25, 2019
Practice What You Preach
Sea of Solitude is certainly not the first game to address mental health disorders. Other titles have included Gris, which touches on the topic of grief following personal loss; Celeste, which centers around the themes of anxiety and self-doubt; and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which may be one of the most-widely recognized titles in gaming to focus on mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and schizophrenia. All four of these games share a commonality in the fact that they were developed by independent studios, which likely fostered an open and safe environment in which the developers were able to work on such delicate subject matter.
Unfortunately, the gaming industry (specifically larger studios), is facing its own mental health concerns stemming from workplace toxicity, ranging in issues from sexual harassment to the term known as “crunch,” which is a term associated with the pressure put on studio employees from impending deadlines, exhaustion from working one hundred-hours weeks, and the resulting lack of any kind of work-life balance. This occurrence has led to numerous reports of employee fear, stress, and anxiety over losing their jobs, should they speak out negatively against the studio.
Take This, a non-profit organization dedicated to identifying mental health problems and solutions within the game industry, recently released a report addressing the current state of the industry in this regard. Much like Mental Awareness Month, the organization is hoping that developers and other gaming insiders will share their stories on social media with the hashtag, #gameindustrystory, to support and, in essence, rebuild a more positive culture of mental health within the industry.
Take Care Of Yourself
No doubt about it, mental health disorders such as the ones portrayed in video games are more common than we probably realize, and are far more complex than what is discussed in this article. It’s likely that most of the issues that go unseen are simply due to the fact that those suffering don’t make their ailments known, whether it be the stress from a rough day of work, or the feelings of loneliness and anxiety that many face even while in a social setting.
We are all guilty of this, as we are all human and don’t necessarily want to place our burdens on others. I, for example, suffer from a mild form of Tourette's Syndrome in the way of involuntary verbal and physical “tics.” These tics directly stem from the amount of stress and anxiety I am internalizing on a day-to-day basis. Although I am self-conscious of my random tics (which will likely never go away completely), talking through those internal pressures - be it with friends, family, or mental health professionals - helps to reduce the number of tics that I experience, which speaks to the value of being open and honest with expressing even the most negative feelings.
If you are at all able to empathize with the characters and themes found in games like Sea of Solitude or Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, you owe it to yourself to do whatever it takes to maintain a healthy state of mental well-being. Help is readily available to you. You just have to be willing to ask.