The Games We Play: Mentally Evil

Brandann Hill-Mann
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One of my favorite things to do is analyze characters in well-written video games. I like to explore the various oppressions that are portrayed in the characters that we see and with whom we engage. Role Playing Games (RPGs) are my favorite genre, but they are not by any means the only place to look.

One trait I see portrayed frequently but not often discussed is mental illness and how it is used as a mechanism to propagate or explain away the actions of characters. Often, I see mental illness used as a tool to demonstrate just how terrible a character’s actions are when their actions could be held up to scrutiny on their own. The use of mental illness as an agent of character development is an old trope that has been used time and again, often marring really great games. Outside of social justice circles, though, I don’t see a lot of pushback against these depictions.

Warning: This post contains mild spoilers for Batman: Arkham Asylum, Borderlands, and Dragon Age II

Batman Arkham Asylum, which my partner plays and I have observed, has many of the workings of an engaging and fabulous game. The mechanics are not complicated, and it is full of really annoying riddles that both frustrate and amuse me, with a deliciously creepy atmosphere. The asylum itself, however, is full of the violent and fearful stereotypes of mental institution inmates and the abuses that they endure. It is rife with imagery that is triggering and scary to people who have had these experiences. The game in no way makes any remark upon the fact that the inmates are segregated from the “normal” people except to assure us that they are violent and it is safer this way. They scream, they rant, and the whole spectacle is a show put on for the amusement of the Joker, hosted by a very sexed-up Harley Quinn. While the game reveals that the methods used on the patients were detestable to some of the staff, by the time the game is over, you have done your job and put all the crazies back in the asylum where they belong.

Demonizing mental illness is a Fallout-esque shooter, Borderlands (Trigger Warning for violence in the trailer). As far as First Person Shooters (FPS) go, the game is not amazingly complicated and I didn’t have too much trouble with the mechanics (have I mentioned how NOT good I am at FPS games?). It is actually beautifully animated using cel-shading, and has interesting PCs, including a female character I actually shamelessly loved. Your objective is to run around completing quests for residents of a wasteland planet en route to finding a legendary vault rumored to be full of treasure. Along the way you encounter many baddies who want to end your existence, called “psychos.” You get many iterations. There is the “burning psycho,” the “midget psycho,” and, well, you get the idea. They are crazy and therefore violent, perpetuating the idea the mentally ill are dangerous. They basically want you dead, and some of them explode. Fun times.

Another game that played heavily on the “mentally ill are dangerous” trope was Dragon Age II, which I have already talked about extensively, but feel the need to address again. When I wrote about Anders and spirit possession as a metaphor for mental illness, some of you pushed back against this idea, insisting that Anders was instead ruthless and calculated. After reading this post by Denis Farr at Borderhouse, and the comments thereafter, I am convinced now more than ever that Anders’ decline was meant to portray a devolving struggle with mental illness (I would venture also that it is a reaction from years of abuse and oppression). Jennifer Hepler, the writer from BioWare who was responsible for writing Anders confirmed in comments that she meant to write Anders as struggling with mental illness, with a part of himself that he can not control, using a magical metaphor for real world problems. Again, Anders was used to fuel a violent act that was possibly blamed on his mental status.

Then there was Meredith. The Knight-Commander of the templars, who had over-used their power, had of course gone insane because of a mystical idol. This was naturally the driving force that made her crazy and was used to show that she had gone too far with her grab for power over the people she was already subjugating. Knight-Commander Meredith could already have been condemned on her actions alone, over-stepping her bounds and removing the rights of an entire class of people. Instead, a device was inserted to make Meredith both crazy and violently paranoid and blood-thirsty, furthering the idea that a person could not possibly come to the conclusion of dominating and destroying a whole group of oppressed people unless she was crazy. Only crazy people are dangerous, and all epically evil events are enacted by the insane.

Mental illness is tossed about casually in the gaming world. Things have come so far that we don’t flinch when we hear “crazy” or “insane” swapped with “evil.” We expect an evil or violent act to come with some kind of excuse, and this eliminates our ability to discuss underlying issues, like the treatment of the mentally ill in hospitals or asylums, or the oppression of people living under extreme imbalances of power.

Depictions of mental illness in video games leave a lot of room for discussion, and we need to rise to that occasion and give these topics more thought than developers give them before shoving them out the door. Ableism won’t go away unless we push harder to eliminate it.

Further Reading: Out of Arkham – Mental Illness in Batman: Arkham Asylum by Pharaoh Katt



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10 Comments Have Been Posted

Another ableist term

Describing the “psychos” you listed the “burning psycho,” the “midget psycho”-- and I didn't want to let the derogatory, ableist term "midget" go by without comment. As its own ableist trope in video games, comics, and RPGaming it's potentially worth a whole article in itself.

You are absolutely right. The

You are absolutely right. The game is full of so many things that could be remarked upon that I wouldn't even know where to begin. I was really pointing the terms they used out to get the discussion going.

I'm not sure how to approach

I'm not sure how to approach the discussion underlying the use of this particular trope set. In my own thinking, I realize I have an assumption that if someone is violent, abusive, cruel, etc., that there is a mental imbalance, something not lining up, and with that is also the assumption that "normal", mentally healthy folks don't perform violent acts or acts of cruelty. At the same time, I am fully aware that many people who are considered by and large to be "normal" and mentally healthy perform acts of violence and cruelty all the time, only they aren't seen or interpreted as such.

Of course, I think our society is still wrestling with what IS mental illness, what it constitutes, who can have it, how it is recognized, and how those who have it are seen, treated, regarded, etc. For many people, "crazy" means "something I wouldn't do" or "something I don't like" or "something I don't understand/isn't within my experience". With that vague and subjective a working definition of mental illness, I'm not sure how to actually discuss the workings of the trope set in video games, literature, TV, or pretty much anything else.

Could you toss out a definition for use in the discussion? Just something about how you are viewing it or how you think it should be defined?

I think mental illness and

I think mental illness and its portrayal is definitely complicated when the supernatural and/or sci-fi elements are added. If a character is under a spell, possessed by a demon, or sickened by radiation (like the Ghouls in Fallout 3, who can be either physically damaged but friendly, though still facing discrimination, or "feral"), it takes on another layer, and I honestly don't know how to take those things a lot of the time. Many times, though, I see things like possession or imbalance due to exposure to some magical/alien/whatever material as a metaphor for addiction as well. I suppose addiction could be a form of mental illness, though. I don't know if you're familiar with the Metal Gear games, but in Metal Gear Solid 4, the main antagonist is shown as exploiting severely traumatized and, it is implied, mentally ill young women to do his evil bidding. While these characters are enemies, there is a distinct feeling of pity for them. While pity is necessarily a progressive attitude towards the mentally ill, these characters are not meant to be seen as purely evil or antagonistic.


...I'd also like to point out that mental illness, or at least some form of it, is shown to plague main protagonists at times. The example I'm thinking of is Dead Space, where main character Isaac receives (or thinks he receives) transmissions from his wife, who is revealed to have died some time before the start of the game. I'm not sure if this counts as "metal illness," as it's suggested that Isaac did not suffer from hallucinations before, but is clearly indicative of at least an unhealthy mental state during the time period of the game.

I always try to write to the

I always try to write to the developers too (especially if they're the kind that might listen). I don't know if it helps, I don't know if the CS department ever even really forwards these things, but it makes me feel better anyway.

There's this idea that anyone who commits a violent crime that goes beyond some kind of line that isn't always in the same place, must necessarily be insane. And there's often an idea that (at least certain types of) crazy people are, or are much more likely to be, violent. Like "you never know when they'll do something unpredictable!"

This reminds me of when an autistic person commits a crime. Any crime really, but obviously murder or hacking the US military and then leaving terrorist threats behind are worse. I just lean my face into my hands and groan in despair, because I know what's coming next. And I get angry at that whole circus surrounding it and all the assumptions and ignorance, but I also get really angry with *them* and I don't mean just the regular angry at people who feel the need to hurt or kill other people. It's the wrong reaction: fueled by the "we have to do everything right because if we do it wrong the whole group is going to be tainted by the actions of one person", but I can't really stop it (though I can stomp it down and argue with it).
Even though it's a story and never actually happened, that's the feeling I had through Hawke after what Anders did.
You can even say it: "You just made everything worse for every mage everywhere." Or something like that. And earlier on he can comment on being the very thing that the Chantry uses to justify their oppression.

Boy, you wouldn't like Twisted Metal: Black

That game exceeded everything you listed in this article when it comes to mental illness, and anything I can recall in gaming. Twisted Metal: Black includes but not limited to (and please forgive any abelist terms I may use, given the nature of this article): a sadistic serial killer (Sweet Tooth), a distressed bridesmaid who murders her friend from jealousy of never getting attention from guys like her friends did, a kid whose taxi driver dad gets murdered and then he turns him into a robot (seriously), a priest who suffered from some vaguely alluded insanity and killed a child during an exorcism, a PTSD suffering Vietnam war Vet who ate his dead friend when they were trapped in a six foot deep hole for days, several characters seeking cold blooded revenge from some previously unwritten wrong done to them and/or people they cared about (one male character had his face twisted and tied in sutures, and one woman's face was permanently embedded into a mask, only opened by a key). And then there's Calypso, the guy running the Twisted Metal competition, who's implied to be a murderous psychopath himself...enough to be given the #2 spot in FBI's most wanted list (one reason he killed the guy suffering from amnesia, after he finally figured out that he was FBI). It's worth noting that several characters are clearly rational and only wound up in the asylum out of poor luck than anything, but they're obviously not as memorable as the crazier protagonists. From what I recall, one metal health institution actually criticized this game, because of its unfair depection of the mentally ill, though it hardly got any attention from the gaming community, since...well, honestly, because it's merely following the leader from how TV/movies/books portray mental illness.

One notable aversion to this is Mass Effect 2's Overlord mission. For those who haven't played that downloadable mission, it starts off as yet another rogue-AI-shutdown plot when geth (i.e., Mass Effect's robotic race) take over the region. But near the end, you realize the source of the geth takeover, and it's pretty unnerving, but for the right reasons. The Cerberus doctor you meet up with talks about how the AI was formed: a human learning how to interface with and communicate to the geth. Not so bad, right? It's not, until you learn the program's volunteer, and I use that term loosely, was the doctor's autistic mathematically gifted younger brother, David. When you finally find David to shut down the program, it's impossible not to sympathize with his nightmarish setup. To interface with the geth, he was hooked up onto a "cyberpunk nightmare" machine with many different tubes attached to his limbs (three of them going down his throat!). Think of the humans on the Matrix hooked up to the computer program, and you're halfway there. To make matters worse, because of the geth network's lightning fast communication (speed of sound, basically), David undoubtedly got tortured when all the gateways of communication shooting into his mind (clearly, the developers did their homework, since autistic people's generally narrowed focus craves details and loathes overabundance of outside stimuli). What made this moment more painful is that the doctor admitted in earlier logs that he found his brother "a hassle" up until he used him for the program. Even though, in some small way, the doctor cares for his brother, he didn't care enough not to use him as a lab rat for Cerberus or hook him up like a computer server. Let's just put it this way. Even the "Paragon" option had Shepard pistol whipping the guy, and it's hard to blame Shepard for doing that.

Someone else mentioned Dead Space, which also came to mind with the recent sequel. Issac and one NPC (Strauss) suffers from dementia. They see visions of their worst moments come back to haunt them. For Strauss, it alludes to his previous acts of murder being spurned by understandable desperation, but he loses his mind and tries to kill you. For Issac, it's witnessing his girlfriend committing suicide in a vid to avoid a crueler fate by the necromorphs in the Ishimura (where the first game takes place). All of this gets a handwave, since it was more than likely triggered by the Marker, an obelisk device that doubles as the series' central focus. The Marker's known for causing hallucinations, so people can keep on building representations of the device. Most get seduced by the Marker's power, including Tidemann and in a lesser extent, the Unitology religion, despite it's very negative side effect of jump starting a necromorph invasion. Some engineers realize the Marker's dangers, though given the games, it was obviously far too late to reverse the damage. So yeah, not as harsh an example, but it ties in with the Dragon Age 2 thing, if you count The Marker as the spirit possession.

Obviously, the Mass Effect example is the only progressive one, as video games don't use mental illness as a positive trait, except as a plot excuse for some savant genius. With ME2's Overlord sideplot, though, it was seen through the light of people who'd take advantage of that ability through manipulation. Hell, that reminds me of Tom Cullen, a ala Stephen King's "The Stand" Because of his mental retardation, Tom was hypnotized to infiltrate the bad guy's lair. At least it worked for his sake, but to be fair, the other good characters were horrified at even going that route to stop Randall Flagg (made all the more ironic, since the person who thought of the idea was Nick Andros, a deaf mute). Still, in both situations, it's apparent that making such decisions doesn't reflect lightly at these characters, or the society that makes such a dubious decision.

Seriously, Overlord is

Seriously, Overlord is progressive? Because you save the brother in the end and torturing him was wrong?

I HATE that DLC SO MUCH. The autistic brother is a stereotype collection on legs with 0 agency and personality, and OF COURSE he has to go on a murder spree, because, you know, what else would you do when you can command a bunch of geth and you're autistic and in pain, right? It's not like we have a ******* clue what we're doing and that our actions have consequences. Homework? I'm laughing because I'd cry otherwise.
Ugh, the sadface dramatic fade-out made me want to puke.

So...I guess you disagree on that one...

But could you elaborate without the knee jerk reaction? I'd be interested to hear why you loathe ME2: Overlord to that extent. It sounds like I missed something crucial.

The autistic guy comes across

The autistic guy comes across like the devs looked at a wikipedia article once or maybe they saw a report about it on TV once. They might as well just have called him Rainman. Oversensitivity to audio stimuli + some reaction to it = not research.

I was happily playing it thinking "hey, an evil rogue AI story, it's nice" when suddenly the word 'autistic' popped up in reference to the trapped brother and I thought "Oh no...".

The rest of it is here:

This is not a progressive portrayal of an autistic person just because he is a victim (that is actually the traditional story, so pretty much mainstream).
Everything that is said and made known about David by his brother in audio and video flashbacks is not negated just because in the end the brother instead of David turns out to be the true bad guy. There is no criticism of the way autism is portrayed, just a bunch of stuff to make it clear it's not nice to do bad things to disabled people just because you can, because they can feel pain. I guess maybe that is progress in some way (sad), but that doesn't make it progressive or any better than disabled = evil (which happens to other disabilities as well, not just to mental illness).
Not to mention that in 3000-whatever they apparently still think the exact same way about disability as they do now (not encouraging).

And there is no explanation at all for the killing ("it hurts" doesn't really do it. Why aren't they running around randomly instead?), it feels like they thought it would be more believable for someone who is hooked up to the geth to just start killing everyone in sight if that person was disabled. Or maybe they just *really* liked Lawnmower Man.

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