Opinion: Serious Gaming

When a person is suffering trauma, ill health or battling through depression, be it their own or someone close to them; there are avenues they can pursue to seek out comfort and solace. They can talk to friends, family or medical professionals. Books can be read, either fictional or non. A film or TV show, all can offer support and understanding.

What about videogames?

Over the last couple of years there has been an increase in autobiographical games dealing with tough and intrinsically personal subjects such as cancer, depression, alcoholism and domestic abuse.

This insurgence could be in part due to the rise to prominence of independent developers. The industry has shifted somewhat and it is now common for one person to conceptualise, develop and release a game, using it as a medium to tell wholly personal stories, that a big publisher would most likely avoid.

My own life has been touched by personal tragedies involving cancer, depression and mental illness, so these are subjects that I am familiar with and are unfortunately close to my heart.

Video games are also very dear to me; they have been a hobby, a career and a place to escape to. Now however, they are becoming a very legitimate option available for support, comfort or simply understanding that others may be going through similar situations for those who are not comfortable talking aloud about such subjects.

The recent and surprising death of Robin Williams is a tragedy and really highlights that it is always difficult to truly know what is going on beneath a person’s public persona or exterior. This passing also sparked Zoe Quinn to contemplate delaying the Steam release of Depression Quest amid claims of opportunism and cashing in, a ridiculous accusation in this case, as the game is “pay what you want.” She decided not to ignore these claims, but to confront them saying:

“I would rather have people flood my inbox with threats again and call me a monster if it means that one person who was shocked by today’s news (Robin Williams’ death) and maybe thinking of reaching out and getting help could use this tool I've made (Depression Quest) to take the vitally important first steps towards clawing their way out of the hell that is depression.”

By now everyone is surely aware of indie game The Binding of Isaac. Released all the way back in 2011 this 2D top-down rogue-like was one of the first games to get into the mainstream dealing with subjects the industry usually likes to avoid. Weaving topics such as child abuse, gender identity, infanticide, neglect, suicide and abortion into its cutely presented graphics and environments this game perhaps opened the gates for others to follow.Returning then to the original question: “What about videogames?”

Well, this is an opinion piece and my opinion is that video games as a medium are uniquely placed to reach people in an interactive and emotive way, that other forms of media are not able to. They give people the opportunity to actually see the world through someone else’s eyes, to understand they are not alone, and when doing so, a video game based around mental or physical issues becomes a very powerful tool.

Look at MMOs. For years, this genre has allowed people to explore and make social connections where otherwise they may not feel comfortable or confident to do so in the outside world.

Should video games replace traditional methods of support? Of course not, but they are an extra avenue to explore when looking for understanding.

When it goes wrong

Whilst the pursuit of more emotive games is undeniably an admirable one. Some of the subjects conveyed or content presented may not appeal to everyone.

For many, they want their gaming hobby to avoid delving into serious subjects or tragic real life scenarios. This is completely understandable as video games are and should be first and foremost a means of escapism.

Developer Simon Karlsson released a game called A Song for Viggo which is a paper crafted point-and-click adventure about a father who accidentally kills his son by running him over.

During it's ongoing development, Karlsson decided to present his game to a forum dedicated to fathers grieving the loss of a child. A bold move which, maybe unsurprisingly, resulted in a degree of negative reactions towards the developer, perhaps due to how he approached the subject on the forum, with one commenter declaring that Karlsson was "disrespectful, exploiting tragedy" and "he prays that God forgives him.”

Whilst the game has received backlash, and Karlsson could have handled certain aspects of the release better I still think it was a brave attempt to create a video game around a difficult subject. Karlsson posted an update to his Kickstarter page which dealt with some of the less than positive responses he received.

You can read more about A Song for Viggo and creator Karlsson in our interview.

The other question, really, is "should video games tackle serious subjects?" 

My answer to this is also: "Yes. They should."The video games industry is more mature and mainstream than it has ever been before. Games are enjoyed by all ages, sexes and races. Video games make more money and reach more people than a lot of films meaning it is vital that they continue to grow and expand what they cover. To do so will eventually allow them to stand side by side with films, books or TV as a medium to be taken seriously.

This article is not a QuickPlay therefore I have not played the following games extensively, but I wanted to showcase very briefly a few examples that fit the mould I discuss in this article. There are many more out there now and more being developed daily that cover a wide range of topical or personal issues.

That Dragon, Cancer

That Dragon, Cancer is a game developed by husband and wife team Ryan and Amy Green. It details the tragic story of their son who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at 12 months and sadly died at age 4.

It intends to put the player in the role of a father of a terminally ill child and is based around situations the Greens went through.

Currently a timed exclusive for the Ouya (as it was in part funded by the company), That Dragon, Cancer is planned for eventual release on PC.

Depression Quest

There has been a lot of recent controversy surrounding developer Zoe Quinn, but this article is not about that and I don’t think it should take away from what is an admirable attempt to reach out to fellow depression sufferers, via videogames.

The game is billed as an interactive fiction game, in which you play the part of someone suffering with depression. It is based on her own experiences of battling the disease and tasks the player with completing everyday tasks and maintaining relationships, whilst balancing their depression and treatments.

The game is available now in a “pay what you want” model and can be downloaded on Steam or via her personal website.

Papo Y Yo

Whilst the previous two games are fairly literal in their subject matter and execution, Papo Y Yo delivers its story and message in a more abstract way.

Looking and playing a little like Ico, with platform and puzzle based gameplay, Papo Y Yo actually serves as an allegory for developer Vander Cabbalero’s struggles from a childhood with an alcoholic father.

The game has been out for a little while now, but is worth playing. It can be purchased from PSN or Steam.