This article is the first entry in a new VICE Gaming series, Mental Health Bar, examining the relationship between video games and mental health.
According to mentalhealth.org, one in four people experience a mental health problem in the UK in any given year. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that this statistic moves to one in five in the US, but, given the size of the country, still means 43.8 million people are known to have mental health issues. That's a lot of people—approximately 18.5 percent of the country's population—yet these figures only cover those that have been professionally diagnosed.
Why someone suffering from poor mental health would abstain from seeking professional help is ultimately down to the individual. The fact that issues of mental health are often stigmatized in wider society of course doesn't help, and first acknowledging feelings of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or one of the other 200-plus classified forms of mental illness can be a complicated process. The false correlation that admitting you need to see a doctor equates to admitting defeat or failure serves to complicate the procedure further still; thus, in short, making the first move can be very difficult. This is something I'm pretty familiar with myself.
In 2008, my uncle committed suicide, which is when I think my own depression and anxiety first began to surface. I finally visited my doctor in 2012 but didn't follow through with counseling and antidepressant medication until 2014. Why did it take me so long? I'm not entirely sure. Looking back, I think I was a bit overwhelmed, and the thought of facing the unknown head-on intimidated me. I've since been told this is not only common but something the majority of people go through when seeking professional help.
While I'm keen to avoid the "here's how video games help x, y, or z" rhetoric here (don't get me wrong, I do think video games can play a huge part in helping people overcome their vices, trials or tribulations it's just that they shouldn't replace seeking actual professional help as and where appropriate), I feel the interactive and persuasive nature of the medium does give it better leverage when conveying sensitive subject matter.
To this end, I was happy to discover the work of Eli Piilonen recently—a Nebraska-based indie developer responsible for two puzzle-platformers named The Company of Myself and its prequel Fixation. Both are built around protagonists who desire to seek professional help, where physical and metaphorical obstacles are tied to the games' genres and concepts respectively. As you overcome actual tangible puzzles in tiered platform levels, you unlock parts of the protagonist's narratives, and step closer to each one's eventual resolve.
"It happened sort of organically," explains Piilonen of why he chose to centre his games around this lesser-explored theme. "There was a certain type of content in movies and in stories that I really liked that I didn't see happening in the games I was playing. I like the movie Seven, which makes you think of stuff you don't necessarily want to think about—the sort of stuff that makes you uncomfortable in service of making a point."
Before making The Company of Myself, Piilonen explains he was keen to create something half influenced by puzzle games and half by character studies. After drawing inspiration from older flash games, he came up with an interesting character-cloning mechanic where players are encouraged to fail several times in individual levels, before restarting and using their previous incarnations—represented by shadows—to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Some levels limit your retries, whereas others offer unlimited restarts.
"I wanted to discover a mechanic where you're kind of collaborating with yourself," says Piilonen. "The lead character is someone suffering from social anxiety and tends to keep himself to himself. I felt at the time I'd come upon this naturally, but then in retrospect, I was just sitting around making flash games, doing a bunch of little things I didn't totally know how to do.
"Maybe this is confirmation bias, but I feel like if you accidentally put yourself in the story, that's the best way. If you're actively trying to tell a story about yourself, it might feel really awkward and stilted. But if you write about stuff that you feel is interesting and you write about stuff that's important to you and you realize later that it's actually extremely embarrassing, that you were divulging all of this stuff. I think that works best."
In turn, The Company of Myself ultimately suggests failure is okay—that being unsure or introverted is normal, but that sometimes coming out of yourself and facing uncertain circumstances is necessary to ensure your wellbeing. Fixation expands on its forerunner's conceit with the inclusion of more sophisticated dialogue and puzzles, and the introduction of better-developed characters.
"Making a game is a way for me to discuss stuff that I can't talk about in casual conversation, usually," adds Piilonen. "If it's something that's too uncomfortable, I find it's easier for me to put that into a game instead of gambling on whether or not someone is going to be like, 'Oh this isn't dinner conversation'."
Which is ostensibly where both of these games excel: Yes, they're simple in aesthetics and design, but their core sentiment is one which is not only informative but, crucially, relatable. The idea that both games mimic character studies adds a dose of realism to the message they're sending; but at the same time they engage players with intuitive platforming so as not to get bogged down with premise—in turn steering clear of sanctimonious lecturing.
"I think it really is that feeling of solidarity," says Piilonen, on what he hopes players will get from his games. "That no matter your life is like, you can feel really good about it. You can feel really bad about it, and when you feel really bad about it it's really easy to forget that a whole bunch of people have had very similar experience and there's a whole lot of people who'd agree with you about how much whatever thing is hurtful or how much it sucks or how much it's affecting you. The solidarity that someone else agrees that this particular thing is uncomfortable, I think, in turn, is very comforting."
Piilonen acknowledges video games as a medium are constantly evolving and that while he's well aware not everyone is interested in games that explore deeper, more cultured themes, the feedback he's received over the years makes it worthwhile—if for nothing else but to prove he and other players are not alone.
"There are rare cases where someone sends us a thing that's super heartfelt and gives a really clear, tangible example of a way that we really helped a person and it's this super unexpected benefit from typing on a computer and learning how to solve these technical problems. That makes it worth it."
Find more information on these games, and others by Eli Piilonen, at 2Darray.com.
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