Recently there have been quite a few games designed to educate the player on different experiences and views. There are games dealing with issues of mental health, illness, oppression, prejudice and sexuality. The term “empathy game” was coined to describe these games, but a number of developers were unhappy with this label. For one thing, it was often used as critics as a way of devaluing them. It implied that these games’ value was primarily in their ability to MAKE people feel value towards X. In cases where the game was conceived as an honest portrayal of an event or experience, you can see how the artist might feel their effort was being ignored if the focus was on everything but their lived experience. It also implies that the responsibility of empathy is on the game and the designer, rather than the player. “Empathy game” implied a passive generation of empathy, just play the game and you’ll care about X.
This implication comes from the way we, at least in the US, are trained to think about empathy and responsibility. Empathy is passive to most people. It is something that art or experience creates within a person. People don’t become empathetic because of their own actions, but rather because of actions done onto them. In actuality, the history of the word “empathy” shows a completely different understanding of the term. The original German word Einfühlung “to feel into” is not passive at all, but very active. Empathy in this context is an action you yourself take into the world. What these games are doing is not “teaching empathy” but rather offering up honest, evocative experiences that give players the opportunity to themselves perform and develop empathy.
I was interested in playing Depression Quest, not because I thought I had depression, but because I was interested in seeing how a game dealt with mental health issues. I was surprised to later find that I did, in fact, have depression. I knew I had Tourettes and Tourettic OCD, and I had assumed that had been the source of all of my own mental health issues.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Depression Quest is a text-adventure game available for free online and developed by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler. It was conceived both as a way for people with depression to learn about their condition and strategies to deal with it, as well as a way for people without depression to gain insight into what dealing with depression can feel like. Of course there are countless ways depression can manifest, and the game should not be seen as a comprehensive overview of all forms of depression. The protagonist is nameless, but still has a distinct personality separate from the player. The protagonist has a family, friends, loved ones, hobbies, etc. While they are generic enough for most players to identify with at least some part of their life, not everyone is going to see their depression reflected identically.
That being said, I was surprised at how much I ended up identifying with the protagonist. A lot of their feelings and fears felt very familiar to me. What really drove this home was how the game cleverly makes the player aware of how limiting depression can be. It does this by using alienation, and subverting the expectations and desires of the player. When the game calls on you to make a decision, it will occasionally show you options that are crossed out. These are usually options most players would assume are “correct” or “normal” behavior, but are actions that are simply too much for the protagonist to deal with when they are depressed. For example, while at a party where the protagonist doesn’t know anyone the options might be something like “stand in the corner and try to look like you’re waiting for someone”, “start drinking, hoping you will loosen up”, “go home”, “play on your phone” or “suck it up and introduce yourself to someone.” I’m paraphrasing here, of course. Now the last option is what most people would consider to be the “best” option, but it is also crossed out and you are unable to click it. Depression doesn’t mean you don’t know what you should do, but rather that you know what you want to do but have a mental block making you unable to. You WANT to be happy or social or productive, but your brain is fighting against you. Someone without depression playing this game can see the option they want to make, but are unable to select it.
By making the player aware of this disconnect, the developers managed to subvert a lot of common reactions to depression. “Just be happier, just go meet people, just exercise more” are all common advice a player might give (or get) in real life, but when they are forced into a simulation where they find this advice is worthless they are forced to think about other methods of dealing with depression, both helpful and unhelpful. What is key is that the developers could have just left those options out entirely, but then a skeptical player could just say “well, in real life I would have just tried to meet new people”. By acknowledging what the player wants to do, they provide an avenue for such a player to rethink their preconceptions and challenge them to adapt to a new perspective.
As I started to play the game I wanted to see how far I could get without going to therapy or taking medication, but as I grew increasingly familiar with the trials of the protagonist, I became more worried for them. I recognized many of the feelings and situations in the game, particularly the crippling feeling of having no energy or ability to work or create even when the motivation and ideas were there. I also recognized the fear of talking to people I cared about, whether friends, family or lovers, about issues of mental health. As I saw the protagonist getting more and more despondent and cut off from his social networks, I became worried for him. I decided to try something new. I was still insistent that I would try to see how far I could get without medication, but I signed up my protagonist for therapy. I also tried being more open about my problems, or at least about having problems, with his friends and family. I had often even kept troubles relating to my Tourettic OCD from people. I never wanted to appear like I was making excuses, evading responsibility, trying to get attention, or wanting to burden people with my problems. Now I was using the game as a chance to experiment.
The characters in the game were supportive. Not all of them understood, but I was surprised that even then they were happy to acknowledge the main character’s feelings. In particular, the main character’s girlfriend was relieved that his problems weren’t her fault and being open about having depression and seeing a therapist helped her understand where his problems were coming from and relate to them. She became someone I could rely on in the game because I was willing to be open.
After finishing the game, surprised and happy that I had helped my depressed avatar find tools that worked for him, I turned my then-fiance reading facebook next to me.
“I just finished playing a really interesting game about depression.”
“Hm? Why is that interesting?”
“I think I might have depression. I recognize a lot of the events and feelings in this game.”
“You don’t have depression. No one does. Things like this game just trick people into thinking they do. Shut up.”
“Oh… I was thinking of maybe trying to see a therapist to get more information…”
“Stop talking about this. Therapists are just an excuse to not work harder.”
I normally wouldn’t go into so many details about this, except that the exchange feels important to how I relate to Depression Quest for two reasons. One is that this is a game that not only helped me become aware of my depression, but also was what first made me aware that I was in an abusive relationship. How often can you say that about any game? Second, her attitude is all-too common among many people. To them, mental illness connotes some kind of moral failure, or that acknowledging mental illness only enables “attention seekers”. These people are wrong. There is no shame in needing help, nor is there in feeling bad or having to occasionally fight your own mind or body. Being a person is scary, we have very little control over things, and everyone seems pretty terrified of admitting that. People don’t want to talk about mental illness or disability or abuse in part because they don’t want to face the idea that they too could face (or already be facing) a similar issue. This of course leads to people being afraid to admit their need for help, because if everyone else is “normal” and seems to manage then someone who needs help must be “abnormal” and bad.
This is why Depression Quest is not simply an “empathy game” that MAKES you understand depression, and why it is something more valuable. It offers players the chance to use it as a tool within the context they choose. People with forms of depression, whether they realize it or not, can use it as a tool to recognize they are not alone or develop strategies. People without depression can use it as a tool to understand a different viewpoint or draw connects between themselves and loved ones suffering from depression. The game invites the player not to merely “learn about depression” as a singular experience that can be taught didactically, but to create and bring empathy into the world themselves.