Mental illness in horror games - a slow crawl to representation

The horror genre has always had a problem of representation when it comes to mental illness, what strides has the gaming industry taken to repair this?

George Bell
24th October 2021
Image: Lagzero.net
Over the course of their comparatively short existence, video games have achieved a lot. Through tons of hardware, copious pixels and more white male protagonists than you can shake a stick at, this medium has grown a lot since the days of 8-bit Italian plumbers. Video games are now depicting some really important topics but still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to the depiction of mental health, something that has been portrayed terribly in the past, especially in the horror genre.
Image: Amazon

A dated and harmful stereotype that has come up far too many times is the violent nature of patients in asylums. Titles like Outlast, Manhunt 2 and even a personal favourite of mine, Batman: Arkham Asylum have kept psychiatric care portrayed as unrefined and dangerous in its treatment of its patients, despite clear advances made well before these games were made. The portrayals have been so bad that Manhunt 2, which portrays a protagonist escaping an asylum while fighting off its inhabitants, has been publicly denounced by The National Alliance on Mental Health due to its “irresponsible, stereotyped portrayal of mental illness”. It is understandable why so many horror games include this as it is a simple yet effective way of getting scares out of people but as games get more and more mainstream, it is essential that they steer clear of reinforcing these dated ideas. Sadly though, with games like the upcoming Asylum, it may still be a while before this happens.

Image: Blogspot

Even the depiction of mental illness in protagonists has been poor with it being used as an excuse to portray bizarre game mechanics and justify violent natures. Games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Darkest Dungeon depict sanity levels for the player which will lower in the presence of darkness, monsters and other disturbing events, causing weird behaviour from the player and hallucinations. While this does add an interesting element to the game, it can feel in poor taste when it sensationalises different illnesses into features of a video game. Even non-horror titles like Sims 3 with its “Insane” trait as portrayed by its characters through bizarre clothing and talking to themselves is meant to give a comedic and interesting element to the gameplay, but mostly just achieves a deprecating depiction of mental illness.

Image: Flickr

However, as I mentioned at the start, games as a medium are constantly growing and maturing and thankfully the depictions of mental illness have not all been bad. A great example is Hellblade: Seuna’s Sacrifice which accurately portrayed psychosis, the condition where people see or hear things that are not there. This wasn’t done through some fluke from the developers but by educating themselves through groups like a healthcare company here in the UK, Wellcome, in order to ensure the depictions were actually accurate. The game received lots of praise for its depiction of mental illness to the point the BAFTA game awards even made a brand new category for it - “Game Beyond Entertainment”. 

Games still have a long way to come and a great many hurdles to overcome in the quest for true and consistent representation for all things, not just mental illness. But with each line of code, each character model and each line of dialogue recorded, I like to think we are getting closer.

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AUTHOR: George Bell
One half film addict, one part computer nerd. All parts Croc lover

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