Much of the programming at the Games For Change Festival is intended to help game developers and the panel “Strategies For Advancing Mental Health in Games,” hosted by Kelli Dunlap, Health and Games Manager of iThrive Games, was one such panel.

In this panel, Dunlap discussed the perception of mental illness both in mass media and in videogames, where it’s often conflated with violence towards oneself or others, with possible positive treatments discussed only 7% of the time. Dunlap pointed out that game designers “have a very particular set of skills that enables us to tackle this challenge.”

Dunlap started with the discussion of treatment games, which are made specifically to “augment mental health treatment” and make treatment more accessible and effective. Oftentimes this means making a more engaging experience than simulations that are traditionally used for treating mental health test, like the “dot-probe test,” which is not a particularly engaging form of treatment. Mental health games also help patients in need with accessibility issues, and invite less stigma that traditional mental health treatments may.

Being less engaging, the dot-probe test has trouble retaining interest. Picture courtesy of Science Direct.

Dunlap wrapped this segment of her presentation up with a reminder to those interested in treatment games needed to have patience above all else, because they will have to allow for testing and clinical studies, which all take time.

Next, Dunlap discussed intentional games–games meant to invoke a specific experience and act as a validating voice to a marginalized and underserved community. She was quick to mention that with these games, intention is not enough to create a successful game of this sort. She cited Stay, which tackles grief and loss, and was made by a development team of two with no psychologists. Despite the best intentions of the team, it did fall to stereotypes at times.

Hellblade Hearing Voices Dev Diary
Hellblade was a success in this realm thanks to careful research.

This was put up against Hellblade, which Dunlap cited as the “gold standard for intentional games for mental health issues.” Ninja Theory worked with experts in the field to make things accurate at all levels and worked with individuals who had specific experiences to make sure things were represented accurately.

Finally, there were commercial games to discuss. These are games made for mass appeal, which can still contain representation: as of 2016, 25% of commercial games had some representation of differing mental health, which at the time was higher than the percentage of videogames with female protagonists! However, videogames often portray those with psychosis as violent and unstable, the “homicidal maniac” type, “psychopathy personified” that isn’t a person beyond their symptoms. Or games that include mental illness portray it as “hell on earth,” which is a problem particularly in horror games. All of this further stigmatizes mental health issues, even when what’s involved seems passive, like a psych ward used as a backdrop for a horror game.

Symmetra in Overwatch is an example of good representation in a commercial game.

Dunlap wrapped up by saying that you don’t have to make a mental health game specifically to advance mental health awareness. You can just include a character that challenges stereotypes, which is what Symmetra in Overwatch does. And she pointed out that the horror genre can be changed–simply setting a horror game somewhere other than a psych ward would be a start. Dunlap did add that if you really wanted to have that, then to do your research–Town of Light was cited, as it was based on a real asylum in Italy and careful research went into the development of the game. It seemed that doing your research, reaching out to the community, and being mindful is key for advancing against stigmatization.

For more information on other events offered at Games For Change, check out its programming schedule and our other related articles below. We were there for all three days, so please continue checking n3rdabl3 for more on Games For Change Festival 2018!

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