With October coming up, it’s expected that you’ll see lots of people looking to get their horror fix. October is the month of haunted houses, ghost tours, Halloween parties &, of course, horror games. I myself have a tradition of having a pumpkin carving party with a bunch of friends that end with us renting a scary movie & trying to scare the crap out of each other.
Well, while searching through the new articles on one of the gaming sites I check on an almost daily basis, I came across an article for an upcoming game jam called “Asylum Jam.” If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a game jam is sort of like a challenge issued to game developers. Developers are given a short amount of time to create their games (usually between 24 to 48 hours) & a specific theme to base their games on. Some of these games can be pretty impressive when you consider they were made in two days. But what is Asylum Jam, exactly? To quote the challenge’s tumblr page:
“Asylum Jam is a 48 hour game jam set for the spooky month of October, taking place on October 11th – 13th. The purpose of this jam is for individuals or teams to create a horror game on any platform or of any type that simply follow the following stipulation… You should not use asylums, psychiatric institutes, medical professionals or violent/antipathic/’insane’ patients as settings or triggers… 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.
Horror is usually derived from the unknown and what we do not understand— and mental illness is one of these subjects where the general public lacks knowledge and insight. Many horror games use the negative portrayal of those who suffer from mental illness as extremely violent or sadistic, usually as the villain or antagonist, as an easy crutch to rest their story, characters and motivations on. Asylum Jam is here to prove that we do not have to utilize a negative portrayal of mental health, medical professionals or medical institutes to create a good horror experience for a gamer!“
I have to admit, I was both surprised & intrigued by this challenge. Despite my love of horror games, I never really noticed before how often we see these tropes. Think about it. How many games have you seen or heard about recently that are set in abandoned hospitals (mental or otherwise)? How many games use “insane” villains? How many game plots involve dealing with medical professionals who overstepped ethical bounds with their patients? A lot. Too many to name.
But I never really thought about these games perpetuating negative stereotypes about people with mental health problems. I have to admit, I’m probably not the best person to judge, given that for the past decade I’ve been studying psychology. Whether it’s doing research for a paper, studying a textbook or working with clients at a community mental health center, mental illness is something I think about on an almost daily basis. It’s my life. But most people don’t usually think about mental health outside of the occasional drug commercial & probably rarely interact with someone with mental health issues. Or, since according to the World Health Organization mental health issues affect one in four people, it’s probably more accurate to say that people don’t know they interact with people with mental health issues. You’d be surprised how many are actually on medication for anxiety, depression, ADHD or any number of “minor” psychological issues. But it’s not knowledge that people will usually volunteer. I think there’s still a major stigma to having a mental illness or even seeking counseling. I’ve seen it recently in my own personal life. A good friend of mine, whom I have been friends with for several years, recently admitted that a few years ago he had a mental break that was so bad he voluntarily admitted himself into a local in-patient psychiatric facility & had been diagnoses with Bipolar Disorder. But he’d been too afraid to admit it to me before. This was in spite of the fact that he knows I deal with this sort of thing on a daily basis & that I know his brother-in-law has struggled with the same disorder for years. To me, this just shows how scary mental illness is to people.
Let me lay some statistics on you to finish my point before moving on to why I think these tropes are so popular. According to a survey done in 2008 by the Canadian Medical Association:
27% of people report they would feel uneasy or fearful being around someone with a mental illness
- 25% of people would disclose that they have a family member with a mental illness
- 42% of people admitted they wouldn’t socialize with a friend anymore of they found out they had any mental illness
- 55% of people admitted they wouldn’t marry someone with a mental illness
- 31% of people reported they wouldn’t hire someone who disclosed they had a mental illness
Granted, this is a Canadian study, but do you think the numbers would look much different in the US?
So why do these tropes exist? Why do we fear those with mental illnesses? Why do we see the tried-&-true plot of the crazy doctor engaging in unethical research? I have a few thoughts on the matter (& don’t worry, it’s not because gamers are bad people).
The medical profession, psychiatry included, has a spotty history. One of the first reasons people bring up is that it isn’t so much fear of current medical practices but fear of the past that makes hospitals, psychiatric facilities & asylums so scary. And it’s a good point. Medicine & patient care have come a long way just in the past few decades. Studying some of the techniques & treatments used in the past can send a shiver down anyone’s spine. Insane asylums in particular were places to be feared. There were all kinds of things the could send someone to one of these places. Anything that deviated from “normal” behavior could land you here. Everything from hearing voices to being homosexual. These were places where people were meant to be kept away from the public for safety reasons, not to cure. You didn’t have ethics boards or standard treatment procedures back then. And some of the treatments themselves were horrifying. Ever seen someone undergo a lobotomy or electroshock treatment? So in a lot of games, it’s the history of the places that adds to the scary atmosphere. That’s why they’re usually set in abandoned asylums. These were scary places where a lot of unethical stuff went down & patients had no hope of ever leaving.
- The average person doesn’t have a lot of direct experience with mental illness. This is the fear of the unknown. As I said before, a lot of people don’t know if someone has a mental illness. Plus, the more severe illnesses are fairly rare. You’re more likely to know someone with depression than you are someone with schizophrenia. People also typically don’t have experience with hospitals or mental wards. Mental health facilities aren’t places people go to just visit. I rank mental wards along with homeless shelters & halfway houses as places people would rather not think about existing where they live. You know they’re there, but you try not the think about it & push it to the back of your mind. Out of sight out of mind.
- Mental illness is a scary thing. Whether from misconceptions or from seeing how people suffer, mental illness can be a scary thing to encounter. I think what scares people the most about mental illness is that it can happen to anyone. Sure, most illnesses have a genetic component, but if you put people in the right situation you can bring out just about any disorder. It’s not really the sort of thing you can prevent. It’s not like taking calcium to prevent osteosclerosis . Nor are they the sort of illnesses that can be cured quickly. A lot of them are just things you can manage with varying degrees of success.
- Crazy is more believable. I’ve observed that there are two main types of horror when it involves a villain or enemy: monster-horror & mental-horror. The first kind shows up in games like Dead Space or any zombie game. The horror is based on a monster or inhuman creature terrorizing the player. The second kind is what you find in games like Outlast (a recently released indie horror game that was actually the catalyst for Asylum Jam) or the first Condemned game. Here you’re dealing with real people who are, for lack of a better word, crazy. I’ve noticed a trend of moving away from monster-horror & into mental-horror because it seems more believable & therefore scarier. And I can see their point. It’s the same reason I’d rather watch The Ring than The Strangers. Monsters don’t exist (at least depending on who you ask) but evil people do. So in that respect, it is scarier to be faced with someone who may exist. The guy in your horror game chasing you may be your next door neighbor. On a more cynical note, it’s an easier way to give an enemy motivation than having to come up with a reason for why they do terrible things, or to avoid just making them “evil.”
But do games that rely on the crazy angle negatively affect the way people view mental illness in real life? I don’t know. A lot of times it’s hard to tell whether media influences the way we think or if it merely reflects it. I think most of the time media reflects the world. These games are merely reflecting what people already see as scary. Plus, you could argue that all games consist of tropes & stereotypes. All pro & antagonists are characterizations because most games can’t take the time to develop them as full people. Crazy people aren’t the only ones. Men, women, crazy, sane, soldiers, gangster… it doesn’t matter.
Personally, I would like to see more accurate portrayals of mental illness. One thing that I would really like to see would be protagonists dealing with mental issues in a realistic way. I can think of several character who, over the course of the game, either go crazy or become crazy (Silent Hill 2 or Eternal Darkness). But not a lot of games have the characters deal with mental illness throughout the course of the game in a realistic or sympathetic way. The only characters I can think of off the top of my head are Eathan Mars from Heavy Rain (being depressed after the death of one son then dealing with his other being kidnapped), Therese/Jeanette Voerman from Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (while a bit over the top I think it’s a good portrayal of Disassociative Identity Disorder) & Captain Walker from Spec Ops: The Line (PTSD & a whole host of other problems). I think you could make a really good horror game. I can imagine something like the movie The Eye, where the protagonist is trying to live a normal life but keeps having hallucinations that get progressively more realistic & frightening, making it hard for them to distinguish between what’s real & what isn’t. Put them in a situation where they have to tell real from imagined danger.
If you’re interested in reading more, you can visit the Asylum Jam site at http://asylumjam.tumblr.com. They also have links to several good articles if you’re interested in reading more about the portrayl of mental illness in games.