5 Ways Video Games Can Help You Understand Mental Illnesses

In the fall of 2012, freelance reporter of the video game industry Matt Hughes committed suicide. Before Hughes took his own life, he emailed some of his editors and wrote that he wouldn’t be able to turn in anymore of his stories because he would be dead. When his co-workers found out about his death, they were all shocked. Hughes was known to be an enthusiastic, positive, and talented writer. Andrew Hayward, the games/apps editor at Mac|Life said, “I didn’t know him personally —he’d been writing for me for the last four weeks or so, and our emails had only really been about work. In my limited interactions with him, I thought him to be very enthusiastic about taking on new opportunities, and he had been building a really impressive freelance career. His writing was great. That’s part of why this seems so remarkably sudden. There weren’t any red flags at all.”

Within that same year after Hughes passed away, Russ Pitts and Susan Arendt, two editors who have worked with him, started a blog called Take This that encourages people in the gaming industry to share their stories about anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. The blog gained a lot of attention and many people opened up about their struggles, hoping to help others. Pitts learned that game developers may be more susceptible to live with untreated mental illnesses. Many clinical psychologists have found that the more educated and tech savvy someone is, the less likely they are to seek help for it. Pitts said, “The sense is that because it’s a mental issue and they’re highly skilled in mental areas, they can think their way out of it. And a lot of people try that, and it doesn’t work.”

Developers are often attracted to the gaming community, because it provides an outlet away from their problems. And because of that, Pitts stated that it doesn’t always act as positive reinforcement for them to talk about the mental health issues that they face. But, it’s not just developers who struggle with them. Studies have shown that many players also turn to gaming to deal with anxiety and depression.

Although video games are often seen as a tool for escapism the way people turn to books and movies to cope with harsh realities, many plots that exist in today’s games were created to promote mental health awareness. We wanted to take part in that movement, too. Inspired by their efforts, we would like to shed light on the progress gaming developers have made that help reduce the stigmas and misunderstandings surrounding mental disorders. Psych2Go shares with you 5 ways video games can help you understand mental illnesses:

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1. Developers don’t attempt to “fix” mental illnesses.

In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Senua struggles with a schizoaffective disorder as she goes through a difficult journey in the underworld made up by her mind. Developers from Ninja Theory, however, don’t try to fix her condition. They reinforce the idea that recovery isn’t so black and white as a straight, narrow path taken to go forward. Instead, the game focuses on seeing the world through Senua’s eyes to promote a sense of empathy and understanding.

Visual and auditory hallucinations, scattered speech and thoughts, and paranoid delusions are all carefully portrayed in the game. Even though the game is in third person POV, Ninja Theory works closely with Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge to ensure accurate depiction of Senua’s condition. They wanted to make sure they were representing her perceptions as realistic as possible.

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2. Characters with severe mental disorders aren’t depicted as violent or vicious and challenges that stigma media often portrays.

People are often misled by the idea that individuals who have severe mental health problems are the ones responsible for committing violent crimes. However, according to MentalHealth.gov, people with severe mental illnesses are actually over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crimes than the general population. Although Hellblade is a combative game, Senua isn’t generally portrayed as a violent character. In fact, most of what she combats comes from the trauma she experiences due to the physical and emotional abuse her father has inflicted on her.

Although Hellblade is a step up in the gaming industry that challenges the stigma of violence correlated to mental health illnesses, it should be noted that many creative industries have used insanity to portray villains. Villains are often depicted as mentally unstable individuals because it’s easy to use their mental illness as a reason behind their motivation for evil doings. The gaming industry can still do better to erase this stigma, but the issue has definitely been raised.

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3. Experiences pertaining to the character’s mental illness are never questioned or invalidated.

Hellblade is a fantastical psychological action-adventure game that takes place in the underworld. It’s heavily based on Celtic and Norse mythology as seen with Senua being a Pict warrior who wears traditional Celtic clothing. Although the game isn’t based on true events, the events that Senua experiences are very much real for her. Players can see just how much they affect her, especially the traumatic ones.

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4. Vulnerability is okay and the stress that characters face is not eliminated as a factor.

Senua is troubled both by her life events and the struggles she faces from her schizoaffective disorder, but she manages to combat them with her unrelenting determination and strong will. In addition to Hellblade’s positive reinforcement to resilience, video games that show stress meters also make it a point to show that stress is normal and affects everyone. Clinical psychologist Tracii Kunkel at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Orlando, FL, states, “I actually think stress meters are great, and if anything they are anti-stigmatizing.” When characters show their vulnerable state in games, it’s an opportunity for players to relate and remind themselves that getting through a tough time doesn’t mean they will necessarily be at their best. It’s never that clear-cut in games, and it certainly isn’t like that in real life either.

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5. The more players are exposed to the complexities of psychological distress, the less they fear it.

Erin Reynolds, creative director for the horror adventure game Nevermind states, “The more we accurately represent the complexities and ubiquity of all types of psychological distress, the less ‘unknown,’ and thus the less ‘scary,’ it will be. People might be able to see that an illness doesn’t define them; rather, it is just one aspect of life that the individual has an ongoing struggle with.

Instead of using jump scares, Nevermind uses twisted and surreal settings, sounds, and imagery. Essentially, the player’s imagination is more important than the game world itself. The mind is a powerful tool and can dictate a lot about the way we feel and cope with difficult situations. This reminds people that how they see their own mental illnesses can influence their own actions and how to cope with them, too.

How do you think video games have contributed to mental health awareness? Psych2Go would love to hear your thoughts! Please be sure to leave a comment down below!



Can Video Games Combat Mental Illness Stigma? (2015, November 12). Phys.org. Retrieved November 15, 2017.

Cheang, J. (2017, August 17). How a Video Game Could Change the Way We Think About Mental Health. Mental Health America. Retrieved November 15, 2017.

Conditt, J. (2016, March 25). Fighting Depression in the Video Game World, One AFK at a Time. Engadget. Retrieved November 15, 2017.

Mental Health Myths and Facts. (2017). Retrieved November 15, 2017, from MentalHealth.gov

Schreier, J. (2012, November 1). Games Reporter Matt Hughes Dies in Apparent Suicide. Kotaku. Retrieved November 15, 2017.

Souppouris, A. (2015, August 20). Video Games are Tackling Mental Health with Mixed Results. Engadget. Retrieved November 15, 2017.

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  1. Hi! The stigma of mental illness in popular media such as video games is a huge issue within today’s society, and reading this article makes me glad that video game creators are starting to promote awareness. Even if there is still a long way to go, this is a start! These points were overall nicely developed and well written. However there were just a couple of instances where the grammar or the sentence structure can be changed for clearer reading: In point one, ‘realistic’ should be ‘realistically’, and in the title of point two it would read more fluidly as ‘which challenges the stigma often portrayed in media’. Lastly, whilst all the points overall are well developed, point three could be developed further by expanding further on the ways in which the game creators have shown the effects of her experiences on her. But all in all, this was very enjoyable to read and it makes me want to play this game. Great job!


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