Mental Health in Videogames

A friend's blog post has inspired me to think about mental health in videogames. How do videogames represent mental health?

Simulations are comprised of rules, and these rules create either a real or an imagined representation. For example, September 12's simulation creates an ideological representation according to the author's beliefs on America's war on terror. This representational property of videogames seems perfect for showing others how living with mental issues feels, yet there are unfortunately very few examples of videogames that tackle this issue successfully.

Most of the time, videogame characters with mental problems are antagonists. Their condition is used as a justification for their crazy diabolical plans or their extreme violence. This isn't a particularly good representation of mental issues since it teaches that these people are more likely to be violent or bad people. As I discussed in my blog post on violence, I believe that continued exposure to such ideological representations can influence the way we think about the real world.

Image from chud.com
To make things worse, most mentally ill videogame characters, even the rare protagonists, often don't have realistically-portrayed conditions. Most of the time, mental issues are exaggerated in service of the plot.

The fact that people with mental issues are almost never well portrayed is problematic because it conveys false representations of mental illness. Popular culture, videogames included, influence the way we see certain things. If videogames consistently portray characters with mental problems as bad, violent and unrealistically exaggerated, isn't it possible that certain people might start believing these representations?

Image from supercheats.com
While not as widespread as the misrepresentation of women in videogames, the misrepresentation of mental illnesses is videogames is an important problem nonetheless. Is there a solution? Why yes, I think there is, thank you for asking.

We need more sympathetic characters with mental illnesses in videogames, and we need better representations of mental conditions. Instead of learning to fear people with mental health issues, we need to learn to better understand them.

To The Moon is the game that really pushed me to create this blog. My first blog post was about how much I loved the game. This Canadian game focuses on the life of a couple, one of which has a mental health condition. The game is character-driven, and as you uncover the past of the couple, you get to learn about the person's mental issue and how it affects the other people in their lives.

After playing the game, I found I had gained a better understanding of how people with that particular mental condition live and how it affects them and their loved ones. I'm no expert, but I personally thought the game did that particular mental issue justice. Like I said, I'm no expert, but this seems like one hell of a step in the right direction.

Update: I've just played Depression Quest, and it's a perfect example of a game putting the player in the shoes of someone living with a mental health problem, in this case depression. Very effective game.

Videogames can make the player understand people who are different. Videogames have enormous power, and it's a shame it hasn't been harnessed to its full potential in the past. However, with the indie and art games movements, more personal and experimental games are being made each year, just like To The Moon. And that's awesome. Let's hope more games try to fight the stigma surrounding mental health.

Extended reading :

Dys4ia: an autobiographical game about a transgender person's experience 

Depression Quest: A well-written and detailed Twine game that puts you in the shoes of someone living with depression.

Loneliness: the title says it all.

Actual Sunlight: a short interactive story about love, depression and the corporation.

and, of course, To The Moon.


  1. I find that you're right. Videogames can have either a positive or negative effect on someone. Playing violent games, might not, but could bring violent actions and vise-versa. So when we talk about mental health in these games, which are often portrayed like you said in an antagonist matter, it could indirectly affect the way we see people living with mental illnesses such as Dementia or Down Syndrome, etc. I love that you've explored this road in your blog Chad.

    JR-L, a 4th year Nursing Student

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! A lot of people who are normally critical of other media (books, movies) tend to turn a blind eye to the content of videogames. Gotta think critically about games too!