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.