As someone who’s struggled with a number of anxiety and depression issues, I’ve often turned to games as a way to survive during particularly tough times. Using video games to cope with mental health issues can be tricky. Sometimes, gaming as an escape can turn into an obsession that could cause one to spiral further into whatever dark place their mind is currently living in. When that happens, it’s important to check in with yourself and evaluate what is going on. 

It’s also important to play games that positively reflect mental health. On the one hand, playing a game that dehumanizes those suffering from mental health issues can negatively impact our own perceptions and cause us to spiral further. On the other hand, a positive representation can even lead to an “increase [in] awareness and promote help-seeking behavior” according to CheckPoint. If you are actively suffering from a mental health issue that is negatively affecting your life, it might be best to choose games that will not cause more harm. After all, taking care of ourselves, physically and mentally, is a top priority. 

Trauma In The Walking Dead

There are a number of games that portray the struggles of mental health and trauma in thoughtful and informative ways. That doesn’t mean the game is necessarily one that is full of joy. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. Take for example Telltale’s The Walking Dead. It follows Lee, a man trying to survive in a zombie-ridden Atlanta. While the game doesn’t directly deal with issues like depression, it does reflect on how psychological trauma affects us in moments of terrible strife. 

There is a moment in the game where players must make a difficult decision. You must decide whether or not to chop the leg off of a man caught in a bear trap before zombies arrive. If you choose to chop him free, the game oscillates between first and third-person perspectives, allowing the player to jump “between being an active agent and a passive observer” thus giving “the player the space and the time to consider his or her choices” writes Kelli Dunlap. Afterward, Lee is visibly traumatized and must reflect on the situation. Telltale’s The Walking Dead is known for giving its players choices in dire situations. It is moments like this that allow players to approach a character’s trauma more thoughtfully by showing how negatively impacted Lee is and how he internalizes that trauma.

When Mental Health Goes To The Wayside

Unfortunately, there are a number of games that negatively portray mental health. Outlast, a game that follows a journalist investigating an asylum for the mentally ill, portrays patients as unstable and unhinged. It does not allow the protagonist time to reflect on the trauma he is likely dealing with as he indirectly causes the deaths of some of the patients. While the game received critical acclaim, its representation of mental health was offensive. It doesn’t spend time letting players care about the patients. They’re seen merely as fixtures in the game where the mental illness is trivialized and the portrayal is one-dimensional.

Life Is Strange: Accurately Depicting Depression

So, why is it important to play games that have a positive portrayal of mental health? For one, it can be validating to see others, even fictional characters, who might be dealing with similar struggles. Knowing that you are not alone has been vital in my own personal experience with depression and anxiety. Life Is Strange is a game that follows Max Caufield and her best friend Chloe Price. Despite the story centering on the duo, the game’s most vulnerable character is Kate.

Kate, a devoutly religious and reserved girl, is bullied relentlessly online and in person. At one point in the game, players learn other students drugged her at a party, and a compromising video spread online. This has caused her to spiral into depression. The game allows players to explore her room and see the ways in which depression takes hold of Kate. Her room is dark, messy, and cluttered. She hasn’t played her violin in a long time, and she covers her mirror so she can’t see her reflection. All of these signs point to her depression.

As Max, players are able to support Kate by defending her from her bullies, talking with her, and being a good friend. Unfortunately, Kate ends up on the roof of a building intending to jump and end her life. If players have established a strong relationship, it is possible to save Kate from jumping. Regardless of the outcome, the game doesn’t let Kate’s story end with her death or being saved. Instead, repercussions are felt throughout the remainder of the game as Max deals with what happened. Either by grieving the loss of a friend and seeing how others react to her death or by continuing to stand by her side as she recovers in a hospital. Thankfully, Life is Strange’s portrayal of mental illness is realistic and sympathetic. Developers even include resources within the game for those suffering in real life.

Wading Through Hell: Psychosis In Hellblade

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is another game that positively represents mental health issues – specifically psychosis. Though its representation of psychosis is positive, the game could be harrowing for some players with its representation. Through the course of the game, players control Senua as she struggles to rescue the soul of her dead lover. All the while she is falling further into her psychosis. Developers Ninja Theory even employed neuroscientists to work on the game to ensure the Senua’s psychosis was done sympathetically and accurately. The end product is a game that skillfully creates a character this is multi-dimensional. Senua doesn’t fall into tired tropes and stereotypes. 

One of the best parts of the game is Senua’s determination despite the obstacles she’s facing and the rejection she receives from society. With all the voices she hears, the hallucinations she sees, and the pain she feels, she presses forward. Players experience these same things through careful sound design, plot points, puzzles, and gameplay. It is easy to feel Senua’s plight as players move through the game. After its release, the game received universal praise for its handling of mental illness. It will likely stand the test of time for how to best showcase it with compassion and accuracy. 

More Games To Play

With a global pandemic continuing to rage on, it is important to take care of ourselves now more than ever. If you are someone like me who deals with mental health struggles, you know gaming can be a great way to practice self-care. Just be sure to choose games that offer a positive mental health representation. Find one that handles it with sensitivity and compassion. We need to take care of our mental health, and as gamers, that can begin with choosing games that will keep us in a positive headspace or ones that allow us to play as others who might be struggling and see how they handle the situations they are in. 

If you’re itching to play more games that highlight mental health in a positive way, here are five more we think you’ll love: