Video Games and Madness: A World of Harmful Tropes

dark-lit photo of a pair of hands holding a video game controller

Having just recovered from another one of many depressive episodes I’ve had throughout my life, I’ve had time to reflect on my relationship to madness and reality. Being of a philosophical bent, I ruminate on these things out of habit. And, whenever I get too swallowed up by the resulting waves of sadness, I find myself turning to video games to break away from reality.

It has been ages since I owned gaming systems, as insecure housing and unstable income make pleasantries hard to come by. Nevertheless, ever since I was a child I have loved following video game storylines. I relish the quirky, hilarious narratives video games offer and, in video games with more emotional centers to their writing, I am inspired by how profound the overall themes can be. Good writing in video games, even ones with terrifying stories, stays with you and has given me many occasions to grow as a person.

However, as I have gotten older and had various mental health disabilities play a deeper role in my everyday life, I have wondered more and more about how madness has played out in the landscape of video games. How humane is the overall representation of those with mental health disabilities, and how nuanced are the depictions of madness in the current age of video game narratives? Unfortunately, as far as video games are concerned, the life of someone with a mental health disability is a crude and violent one.

Whether it is the formulaic usage of an asylum as a setting for horror in games like Outlast and The Evil Within, Manhunt 2’s introduction sequence showing patients murdering asylum staff, or the older cliche of a person running around wildly in a straight jacket, mental health does not get positive treatment in video games. Or rather, anyone who seems mentally unwell compared to those considered of sound mind is treated at best with pity and at worst with fear.

Time and again these views of mental illness have been proven incorrect. As frequently as video games associate those with mental illness as being inherently violent or hopeless, the truth is anything but this. In fact, those with mental health issues are more often victims of violence, no more likely to be violent than the general population, even in cases of less common issues like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Both personal and statistical data corroborate this, as well as the reality that people with mental health disabilities live a marginalized existence due to mental health-related persecution. All of this further ignores that reasons like abuse of women, racial discrimination, etc. account for more violence in the US than mental health disabilities do.

The problem with engaging any of these points is that it validates the notion that conversations treating those with mental health disabilities as inherently violent are still worth having. Furthermore, these grotesque mental health tropes in video games aren’t dehumanizing just because of their factual inaccuracy. Rather, the bulk of their stigmatizing effects comes from how often they solidify negative perceptions of those with mental health disabilities. When the only image of mental health disabilities in video games is that of someone scheming, murderous, and morally dark or a pitiful, helpless person, it is hard to feel represented as a three dimensional character, let alone a human being.

And when people react to these representations by discussing their accuracy in depicting people with mental health disabilities, I can’t help but feel they have missed the point. I don’t feel dehumanized by these tropes for their inaccuracy. I feel dehumanized because what I see is a poorly written caricature of a human being.

As someone who has grown up with video games and seen their potential to carry through profound messages, my sadness with the state of mental health representation is less about facts and more about character variance. I have interests, likes, and quirks like any other person and my madness is simply one dimension of my full character. I can be dealing with madness and still be the same goofy, shy, anxious person I have always been.

What stories and takes on humanity are lost when the only conception of mental health in a story is scary, insane inmate #3678? What if we had more amazing stories of struggle and triumph like the lead of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, who succeeds in her quest, yet never fully moves away from the psychosis that defined much of her life? Or even a more morally murky character whose mental health issues are not the totality of her motivations but an integral part of how her worldview formed? What could be gained from writing human beings with difficulties, rather than using cliches as a substitute for rich character backgrounds?

I can only hope that when another bad depressive episode comes around in the future I’ll have better games to look forward to than those with a one-dimensional use of madness. Hopefully, new games will have more humanized mad people like me.

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Angela Lemus-Mogrovejo is one of the 2018 Rooted in Writing Fellows. She is a twenty-five year old disabled, transgender femme/woman of color working and writing to make a stable life for herself in the Inland Empire area. As an artist, she writes poetry and essays in the hopes of uplifting the ongoing efforts of disabled QTPOC artists and communities in imagining/creating a better world for us all. A better world is possible and she hopes to play her part in making it be realized.