“I’m not mentally ill because I’m a gamer, but am I a gamer because I’m mentally ill?”

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With the discussions swirling around Depression Quest and research showing that games can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety and aid therapy (British Medical Journal- http://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.e2598 American Psychological Association- http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/gpr/14/2/141/), I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mental health and video games. This is a topic very close to my heart because just under a year ago I was diagnosed with both clinical depression and an anxiety disorder. This led to me having to take a year out of university and missing a chance to study at the University of Chicago. Now don’t worry, I’m not just going to write down all my misfortunes and cause you, dear reader, to have a depressive episode of your own. I’m telling you this because that year off led to me starting to write about video games and working at Ginx TV, both of which have been incredibly helpful to getting my life back to normal and have got me thinking about the role games have played in my recovery, and whether my illness has informed my love of gaming.

I should probably give a little bit of context – there is no tangible reason for my mental illness, and nothing has happened in my life to cause it. An unfortunate mix of genetics, chemicals mixing about in my brain and the way my mind works seems to be the general conclusion for its appearance. Although I wasn’t formally diagnosed until just under a year ago it’s thought that the anxiety disorder has been life long and that the depression came along a little bit later. Looking back on my childhood, I can even then see a connection between when I was really anxious and video games. If I got really worked up I would spend a couple of days glued to my Gameboy or GameCube and once I’d done that I would feel more able to cope with everyday tasks. I can’t help but feel that my favourite games have been informed by this need for escapism; Oblivion, The Legend of Zelda and Fallout; if they have a large world that I can lose myself in, I’m more than likely to love it.

Now don’t get me wrong, at my lowest I couldn’t get out of bed and get dressed, let alone play hours of Monster Hunter. However earlier this year, they did play a vital role in gradually getting me to engage with things again. I’m an avid reader, but at the time I had no concentration or memory and the mere thought of a magazine, let alone a book was terrifying, I would sometimes be propped in front of a TV but I couldn’t pay attention, I would just passively sit there. A simple video game however was perfect, it wasn’t challenging and didn’t require memory but it also required some engagement and gradually it improved my ability to focus.

That feeling of escapism I found in video games was necessary to getting me back on my feet me. The villagers in Animal Crossing don’t look at you with sympathetic eyes and Mario doesn’t walk on egg shells when you’re around. When you’re playing a game, you’re in that world and you don’t have to worry about what people are thinking or if they know you’re ill. However, this escapism can also just perpetuate depression or anxiety by ignoring your illness and avoiding other people, not allowing you to open up, which is a vital step to recovery.

Mental illness is still a bit of a taboo subject in our society. I was told by a psychotherapist that because of my condition I should consider very carefully whether I wanted it on my medical records, because they’d had issues of people not getting jobs because of it. So my choice was either streamlined medical care or my mental health not being made known to employers. This should never have to be a choice. The reason for all this misunderstanding is that people often struggle to see mental illness as something as real as diabetes or asthma, and to understand it is a difficult task if you haven’t experienced it.

Depression Quest is a text based game in which you go through day to day tasks as someone with depression. It’s wonderfully eye opening to the struggles people with depression face in day to day life and has created a simple way of understanding the illness. Unlike any other art form, games have the ability to make us feel responsibility and guilt by putting us in someone else’s shoes and making their decisions. Games have the potential to show the physical difficulties of mental illness as well as the psychological ones.

Depression Quest works brilliantly and is a pretty simple format. The future of gaming seems to be heading towards deeply immersive gameplay with virtual reality being a recent hot topic. At London Comic Con I had a chance to try the Oculus Rift and see a presentation by the developers of Loading Human; Untold Games CEO Flavio Parenti and designer Matteo Sosso. They made some very interesting points about how the player becomes the character by not just seeing exactly what the character sees and experiencing their world, but by also hearing the character’s thoughts. Could you imagine how moving it would be to become a character who suffers from depression, anxiety or any mental illness and listening to the pervasive thoughts that cripple them? As someone who suffers from both depression and anxiety I would love to be able to put a head set on someone so that they could get a glimpse into what it’s like. Hopefully this would eliminate questions such as “Don’t they just cancel each other out?” or “Maybe you’re just a bit stressed?” Obviously something like that wouldn’t be completely the same, but seeing how eye opening Depression Quest was to people, the opportunity to educate and raise awareness is huge. Games really do have the potential to improve dialogue about mental health.

It wasn’t just video games themselves that helped me, the gaming community and games journalism acted as a kind of comfort blanket, that helped me to be able to write and socialise again. None of my friends growing up were gamers and gaming was always something I did privately or with family. It’s only very recently that I’ve really socialised with others who play games and that’s because I’ve started writing about them. Video games gave me a common ground with meeting new people – it was something I could happily talk about knowing that I was safe within my comfort zone. I also knew I wanted to write as I found it very therapeutic, but I struggled to even put a sentence together at my lowest. Video games were something I knew and could write about with relative ease, enabling me to slowly get my confidence back both creatively and socially. Nothing quite knocks your confidence like being completely powerless and unable to complete the simplest tasks. Video games, writing about them and the gaming community have helped me to slowly build my confidence back up. I’m sure there will be other people out there who can relate to this.

So, I’m not mentally ill because I’m a gamer (despite what the tabloids would have you believe) but am I a gamer because I’m mentally ill? I’m not saying all gamers have a mental illness but I do wonder how much of my own interest in games is related to my illness. Would I have been interested in games at a young age if I didn’t need escapism? Obviously no one can really answer those questions. My aunt once said to me “Don’t let people pressure you into what should make you feel better, you have to find your own way of coping” and I am thankful that video games are very much part of my own way.

If you have any issues with mental health, contact your local GP or contact Mind on:
T: 020 8519 2122
contact@mind.org.uk

Illustration by Faye Stacey- http://pondicherry-baby.tumblr.com/

Not “If” but “When”

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Before I started writing about video games a friend of mine warned me that it wasn’t about if you get a sexist or homophobic comment, it’s about when.
Most of the writing I do is as a nameless script writer, my gender is unknowable to all viewers. However, over the past few weeks I’ve started streaming on Twitch. For those unfamiliar with Twitch it’s a website on which people stream themselves playing video games and viewers can talk to each other and the presenter via a chat room.

Every Monday or Tuesday Lucy (a presenter and writer at the same TV channel as me) and I stream for two hours playing a video game and chatting to the viewers. I love doing this, I love the immediacy of it, I love being able to talk with people directly. On the whole Twitch has been a great experience and I hope to continue doing it.

The majority of our viewers are lovely and we are really lucky to have such a great group of regular followers. But you can’t ignore that every week we get a lot of inappropriate, misogynistic and sometimes just down right disgusting comments. Nearly all of them aimed at our gender or speculating our sexuality. You’ve probably looked at the examples I’ve posted above, all of which were just a few choices of comments all from one two hour stream.

I have noticed there seems to be four particular types of comments-

Type one! The openly sexual comment. This usually involves the commenter stating what they would like to do to us, or what they would like to see us do. It would not be acceptable to come out of the blue and say this to our faces. So just because we are on the internet does not make it any more acceptable.

Type two! The questions and speculations about our sexuality. As two girls streaming together, at the same time, and shockingly both of us dare to have SHORT HAIR. Outrageous I know. This means we get A LOT of questions either asking us if we are a couple or just openly declaring us as lesbians. Now of course thinking we are lesbians is not offensive, but constantly asking about our sexuality when it is of no consequence is incredibly tiring and frankly a bit rude.

Type three! This is just the general misogynistic comments, usually stating that because we are female we are automatically rubbish at the game. One game involved driving a car, cue onslaught of endless “women drivers” jokes. It was like we were stuck in a 1970’s time warp.

Type four! The ludicrously over the top trolling comment, they usually make little sense and involve either insults and/or threatening us with physical violence. We hope that these comments are just a bizarre way of trying to get attention and not genuinely from a mass murderer, but either way it’s still disturbing to see things like that pop up when all you’re doing is playing a video game.

These comments leave you with a difficult decision, do you ignore? Name and shame? Scream uncontrollably? We usually go for the first option, not address the comment and let our lovely viewers take them down for us. What’s bad is that I’m not shocked by these comments, I expect them. Just being a woman on the internet seems to warrant this amount of hatred and unpleasantness nowadays. We are taught to ignore these comments, brush them aside and see the perpetrators as sad little trolls. Perhaps though we should think of it in a different way.

When first considering whether to do a regular stream or not I was told by someone experienced in the industry, to be careful as we didn’t want to look like we were selling sex. I was taken aback by this, neither me or Lucy are exactly page 3 models. As a friend kindly put it “Holly you couldn’t sell sex if you hid it in a packet of crisps at your local shop.” I could see the point that we didn’t want to make our stream all about our gender, but the insinuation is that by just being female we are “selling sex”. It seems that to some it is impossible to separate gender from sex object, and this is where the unpleasant comments stem from.

The view that being female and being on the internet automatically equates to being a sexual object means that some people feel that it’s completely within their right to try and use homosexuality as an ignorant insult and state what they would like to do to you sexually, why else would a woman be on the internet! Many people say that gaming culture has the issue with women, and while video games certainly have a way to go, it isn’t gaming but internet culture that is the issue. The idea that women are some kind of novelty outside of being sex objects can create a destructive atmosphere.

This kind of attitude can only be tackled with education and a more positive representation of women in the media. So perhaps instead of being taught to ignore the comments, the teaching should be aimed at the offender rather than the victim. By doing so hopefully one day we’ll be able to change the appearance of sexist and homophobic comments back from “when” to “if”.

“Girliness” in Games

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New York wasn’t interesting enough for me and my brother, not when you’re on the last level of Kirby’s Dreamland

When I was young I was the girliest of girls. I loved anything pink, sparkly and even more pink. I also loved videogames, and like most people my age I spent a lot of time running around the Mushroom Kingdom and Hyrule, I adored the pixelly brilliance of Miyamoto and once I started playing I could not stop. But as I sat in my fluffiest dress, surrounded by dolls, playing on my pink Gameboy something bothered me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am eternally grateful that game design has moved past the “here’s a female character, you can tell she’s female because of the pink/dress/eyelashes/makeup/heart and flower motif” stage. Those were definitely dark times. But the thing I struggled with as a little girl and even still as a (only slightly) bigger girl was that if a character was what we would stereotypically think of as “girly”, she would be annoying and a bit useless.

The last thing I want to do is make a complex issue such as femininity down to- pink dress is feminine, blue jeans are not. Of course that’s not the case. Gender and gender identity are broad scales full of glorious variations. I’m just remembering a time when a tiara was often perched on my head and I was disheartened that the female characters I saw in my games that shared my affinity for adorable outfits were either spoilt and annoying or just a bit useless.

Even in my beloved “The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker”, one of my favourite all time games, it was still apparent. Tetra is a great character, a feisty girl who is the captain of a group of pirates. I thought she was great, finally a lady in charge that wasn’t sexualised. As you progress through the game you discover that [SPOILERS] Tetra is actually princess Zelda. She then changes from her shorts and top into the famous pink dress.

“Awesome,” I thought “as if she couldn’t get any better now she’s got a glorious dress! I mean she was rocking the pirate look but now she’s glamorous!”
Then the bombshell was dropped.
“Zelda… it is far too dangerous for you to join us in this task… It is my wish that you wait here in hiding until we return.”
WHAT.
I was waiting for the gutsy pirate to contest this and join in the quest. But she doesn’t!! She stays there dutifully waiting for the hero to return. I was gutted.
“Typical,” I thought “she gets a nice dress and suddenly it’s all too dangerous for her. I mean sure the dress might have been a bit long to be practical on a ship, but she could have cut it! Maybe turned it into a nice sporty number…”
It wasn’t even the fact that she had to stay behind; it was that she had seemingly lost all her personality just because her hair and outfit changed. Later on she does help out with the final boss battle by firing arrows but by then the damage had been done.

Wendy O. Koopa is the only female child of Bowser, although I am aware she is an evil character she was also decked out in a pink bow, heels and jewellery. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but her defining characteristics were that she was spoilt and bratty. Often a recurring theme in cartoon and gaming characters with those design traits.

The strong female characters I saw in games were more Tetra than Zelda. Samus from Metroid and Jade from Beyond Good and Evil didn’t really care about clothes like I did, and neither should they, but there was a definite lack of variety in strong female characters.

Seeing these stereotypes in the games I loved so much made me think perhaps I was wrong to like dolls and dressing up in dresses as much as I did. So I made the decision to say farewell to my pink past and become a tom-boy. Looking back I can see how unfair this was on me and any girl who felt the same.

Nowadays there is progress, my favourite example of this is Leliana in Dragon Age: Origins. She talks about her love of shoes and fine clothing without having to suffer the personality lobotomy that some gaming characters get. Hopefully in the future we’ll see even more complex and diverse characters in gaming and writers will grow to learn that women can dress in pink dresses and like fashion without having to be sexualised soulless shells, dippy and useless or annoying brats.