While only in its infancy, the 2020s are shaping up to be the decade of the uber-woke: you can’t so much as glance at a screen nowadays without being shown stories of racial discrimination, political tension and a certain little virus – all of which would have previously been incredibly taboo topics indeed. Rightly so does the tide seem to be changing on our attitudes to such issues, with much more of a general acceptance and tolerance to people’s backgrounds and beliefs. Another of these topics is mental health. And that tide seems to be changing too.
It’s changing in all forms of media, be it the biggest blockbuster films, the heartfelt lyrics instilled into the most popular songs or, indeed, our beloved video games. More and more we are seeing deep topics being the driving force behind some of the most popular titles, being treated with the research and maturity they are deserving of – and I am certainly all for it.
Alas, as someone with a massive passion for both video games and the fields of neuroscience and psychology (and considering that World Mental Health Day is as good a time as any to bring this matter to the fore), I wanted to take a deep dive into how the mainstream media views the correlation between mental health and video games, as well as the changing of this attitude, and also the potential future implications for gaming on our minds. It’s science… but fun!
As a side note, I will not be discussing the causes and effects of video game addiction in this piece – I think that one needs an entire article in itself!
The Past – Video Games vs The Media
It’s the 1990s, and picture this: video games are in their rowdy and rebellious teenage years, and the media are their traditionalist and critical parents. Given that just a few decades ago, the developers of games were limited to a few megabytes and a laughable amount of pixels to produce their games on, it’s understandable that Pac-Man and Sonic the Hedgehog were not exactly the most ‘enlightening’ of games – but that by no means equates to them having any inherent violent nature.
However, that was how the mainstream media and older generations viewed the infant gaming industry, tarnishing the likes of Mario and pals with the same brush as the admittedly violent GTA and DOOM. It’s been an easy shot to take by the media for decades – video games are bad, and all they do are corrupt the minds of our poor, poor, children!
Producing much more realised and insightful games simply wasn’t on the agenda for video games in these years – one only has to take a look at the ruckus that 1992’s Mortal Kombat stirred up to realise that soon devs were pushing the boundaries for the sake of pushing boundaries, in an attempt to stick it to the man. Although, it’s important to understand that this occurred in the late 20th century, where the topic of mental health was both misunderstood and under-represented in all walks of society. Films, music and, yes, gaming all had a long way to go in this sense.
The Present – Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice & a Breath of Fresh Air
Whilst there have undoubtedly been many titles as of late that incorporate the issue of mental health into the game, I would argue that none have done it to such a degree, and with so much success, than Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. In fact, upon first breeding this idea of an article in my head, my mind instantly dashed to Ninja Theory’s 2017 release for inspiration. This was a title that took what is required of a modern-day triple-A title and turned it on its head, with an incredibly insightful and researched experience surrounding a young 8th century girl’s struggles with psychosis – an affliction caused by mental illnesses such as schizophrenia which cause delusion and hallucination, where the sufferer struggles to differentiate between reality and fantasy.
As it is set in the 8th century, Senua’s own internal demons are added to by a complete misunderstanding of her mental abnormality by those that surround her, with her psychosis being claimed as the result of a curse. The plot centres around her on a quest to save the soul of her deceased lover, but what I found to be the most incredible part of the game was how Senua’s internal voices are represented in both a gameplay sense and a narrative sense.
With her ‘Furies’ constantly making themselves heard within her head, Senua (and in turn the player) is constantly at odds with voices that will provide her tips for progression, and also those that attempt to deceive and dissuade her from doing the right thing. It’s an astounding depiction of the constant failure to distinguish between real and fake that real-life psychosis patients experience on a daily basis, as well as a unique and impressive gameplay mechanic in the puzzle and combat sections of the game.
It could have been easy for Ninja Theory to crudely depict psychosis in an attempt to drive more intrigue for their game. But by handling the topic sensitively, and conversing with psychosis patients as well as leading neuroscientists, what they produced in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is truly worthy of applause as a title that changed how mental health is approached in games forever.
I’m so excited to see what the sequel, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, brings to the table!
The Future – Video Games and Mental Health Going Forward
In July 2020, a team led by Dr Aaron Drummond of the School of Psychology at Massey University, New Zealand, re-examined 28 studies previously conducted regarding the link between aggression and regular video game playing. They concluded that the risk of developing desensitisation or ‘emotion-induced blindness’ to aggression was incredibly slim – firmly disproving the decades-old adage that “video games cause violence”. In Dr Drummond’s own words:
“More importantly, we found that high-quality studies typically had effect sizes which were statistically indistinguishable from zero, implying no significant relationship between violent gameplay and aggression in the highest quality studies.”
In light of this, my mind was injected with newfound belief that video games can have wholly positive effects on the mental health of the player, especially given that the subject is being treated with renewed sensitivity and maturity in more recent games. Instead of stating that video games are the root cause of violence, it is possible that they act only as a trigger for those who are predisposed to violent tendencies due to their upbringing and environment.
Most gamers adore their hobby due to the escapism that it can generate and, especially due to current isolations and lockdown, video games can provide short-term relief from stresses that can lead to mental conditions such as anxiety, paranoia and depression.
(I play games) “to get away from the stress, high expectations and drama of real life” – such a view, from one of my good friends, is a simple one but will surely resonate with much of the gaming community.
In my own research conducted, it appears that the genre of the game being played can also provide different mental effects: it may be a cliche gaming journalism point, but sandbox games such as Minecraft allow you to create to your heart’s content – surely this freedom reduces the stresses of life’s limits? Furthermore, the very purpose of online gaming, to connect others from across the globe, also provides an opportunity to converse with people potentially experiencing similar experiences to you – as detailed in a moving piece by the non-profit organisation YoungMinds. This, yet again, is no more true than at present, when social contact is restricted.
In conclusion, in the long-term it seems to rely upon the widespread destigmatisation of the everpresent myths of video games causing aggression and violence, particularly in impressionable children, for video games to truly benefit the mind of the player. There’s still a long way to go, but the tide is certainly changing for this to become the case, and the fields of neuroscience and psychology are paving the way by providing scientifically-backed evidence.
Feel free to leave your comments on this topic down below or on our social media channels. Also, if you want to research further into this developing topic, I recommend looking deeper into Dr Drummond’s recent research, as well as keeping an eye out for a future article on video game addiction. Oh, and play Hellblade!