An Exercise in Thought and Feeling, or a Flood of Questions

At the moment, I’m trying to tease out a set of questions that have been stewing since I came across a string of video games about depression. Three games in particular have largely informed my thinking on the matter. They are Elude, Sparx, and Depression Quest. To unpack and explain the context out of which these questions arise, I want to relate some of my experience playing each and situate that experience next to the intended purpose of these games (i.e. what the game developers say their games are for). What follows is less so a polished piece with a claim to make, and more so an exercise in thought and feeling. Bear with me.

Before I begin, let me preface with this: Depression is a serious mental illness and if you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, please call the US Suicide Hotline: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433), the Canadian Suicide Hotline: 1-800-448-3000, or 0300-123-3393 in the UK. Lastly, I’ve never been diagnosed with depression, but I have close family and friends who’ve suffered from it and related mental illnesses. I mention this not to give myself license to speak— quite the opposite actually. From the beginning I want my readers to know that I do not claim, nor should they consider me, to be writing from a position of authority. I’m writing from a more uncomfortable place than that. Nonetheless, the topic of depression as it relates to video games resonates with me on a strong enough frequency for me to feel like I should make something of the various questions I have.

Elude, made by folks at the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, is a web-based side-scroller (think Mario, up/down/left/right). According the team’s online research statement, the impetus behind the game is for it “to be used in a clinical context as part of a psycho-education package to enhance friends’ and relatives’ understanding of people suffering from depression about what their loved ones are going through.” In other words, the video game has a function as an educational tool.

A boy, in a tree, The normal level in Elude
The normal level in Elude

In Elude, the player is supposed to jump from tree branch to tree branch in order to reach the treetops, a bouncing, bright space that signifies happiness. The player spends the majority of his or her time one level below, in the normal space of the forest, where there are branches to climb and where the player ‘resonates’ with birds. After a certain point, the normal level of the forest turns dark, your player movements become slower, less powerful. Eventually roots or tentacles appear onscreen and drag you down into the dark, cramped underground. You try to move your character, but can’t, and seem stuck in mud and sink deeper and deeper. Eventually you climb out, but the cycle only continues, or the game suggests that the cycle is continuous (since the game only takes about 5-10 minutes to complete). The cyclical narrative feeds into the educational experience of the person trying to understand more of what depression is like for someone they know. As stated in the team’s description of the game, the narrative works as a metaphor that models “what depression feels like by contrasting it with other mood states (normal and happy)” and that “The various parts of the game-world represent emotional landscapes that correspond to different moods with the gameplay changing according to mood changes.”

The changes in gameplay had the strongest impact on me when I played it. While trying to reach more birds and then the treetops, the controls stop functioning like they should. As far playing video games go, it’s an unsettling feeling to have the power to control your (virtual) body taken away from you. When I know that when I press up, I’m supposed to go up. And when I do and I’m not going up, then the whole system that makes up the game, from the powerless player to the invalidated vocabulary and mechanisms (controller, controls, directions), gets undermined. Ultimately, that unsettling feeling draws out a difficult tension between the medium and the creators’ intent. When I played, I walked a fine line between understanding that metaphorical, emotional work that the lost functionality was doing and just getting annoyed that I couldn’t keep control of my character. After playing the game a few times, I would just start to curse and get a little angry about not being in control of my character. For a game with a purpose like Elude’s, toeing that line between metaphor and gameplay is necessary but difficult because I can imagine other players losing sight of the game as more than a game. That is where outside context, the rest of the ‘educational package’ would have to come into play.

Character named the Guide in Sparx
The Guide from Sparx

On the other end of the spectrum is the video game Sparx. Created by a group at Linked Wellness, Sparx is a web-based and mobile adventure game. Whereas the creators of Elude present the game as an educational experience to help people understand others struggling with depression, Sparx “is a computer program (based on Cognitive Behavior Thearpy [CBT]) that helps people with mild to moderate depression. It can also help if you’re feeling anxious or stressed.” The focus here is on the individual directly dealing with depression, not just those around them. After you customize a character, you are tasked with freeing a world of negative thought-beings called Gnats by retrieving lost gems throughout the land. In between levels you interact with the Guide, who speaks with you about the CBT exercises or lessons you learned in previous missions. These interactions are supposed to actively help you cope with feelings of depression or anxiety.

players talking in Video game Sparx
Scene from Sparx. An example of its corniness and dated looking design

The game looks and feels very dated and basic compared to the movie-quality, million dollar budget products I certainly have become used to in recent years. I mention this briefly because its corniness and clunky design might be a barrier to immersion into the world and into the therapy. Which I could imagine being a reasonable concern. If someone is too distracted by or too aware of the game they’re playing, then the game undermines itself.

The hybridity of Sparx, part game and part therapy, warrants some discussion though; specifically, it combines and emphasizes that foundational element of video games- achievement and maps it onto a narrative that is ‘actively aware’ of the player in a deeply personal, psychological way. Yes it’s undeniably scripted like anything with a narrative. But it’s startling and unfamiliar to think of a video game that begins to focus not just on itself being enacted, nor on you as player, but on you as you. For all of its beauty and action and rich historical themes, Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry has never asked me how my day was. Going that … meta doesn’t make sense given the narrative of the series. Or, apparently for any mainstream game narrative it would seem. Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of gaming and why we play. If games are a form of entertainment, particularly a form of escape into other worlds, then evidently escaping also means leaving you as you behind. The reasoning seems to suggest that you can’t be you in a video game, otherwise it would just be real life. Or it would be Sparx.

Lastly, there is Depression Quest. Spearheaded by indie game developer Zoe Quinn, Depression Quest is a digital ‘(non)fiction’ story where you read and ‘play’ as a person suffering from depression by clicking narrative options when prompted. The site states that the game “aims to show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people.” While the game’s audience is both sufferers and people unfamiliar with depression, the game does not have that explicit, prescriptive element that Sparx does.

Written text from video game Depression Quest
Scene from my narrative playing through Depression Quest

The game itself plays out like a digital story with a mechanism of interactivity familiar to those who may remember the choose-your-own-adventure form of certain children’s books. After reading a scene, the character (you) is faced with a decision. You, the player, decide how the rest of the narrative unfolds. But, based upon previous choices and the severity of your character’s depression, certain options will be visible but unclickable. I played through it once, and felt drained afterwards. I didn’t know when it would end (and for me it was questionable if it did end based on my ending) and not knowing seemed to make last forever. Both Elude and Depression Quest attempt to recreate and transfer a sense of the feeling of depression into the player, and yet I felt more, more everything, after finishing Depression Quest. Maybe it was the length compared to Elude. Or it could have been the primary medium: words vs. moving, interactive images.

With all of that laid out, I want to end more or less with a flood of questions.

What is a video game? What (dis)qualifies Depression Quest in particular as a video game? Does the ability to choose parts of the narrative (in a digital, i.e. clickable way) make it one?

Why do we play video games? Is it simply because it’s a form of escape? Are there different modes of escape for different media? How do the connotations of escapism change and remain the same when we’re talking about people with depression? Where then are you in relation to yourself if you’re playing a video game, if you are looking to escape from your real world and your real self?

What would it mean for more games to have a explicit purpose like the educational games about raising depression awareness?

How are video games distinct from other media in terms of their ability to function as a way to better understand ourselves and the human condition? Specific to the difficulties of understanding and dealing with depression, how can we situate a video game like Elude or a video game/digital narrative like Depression Quest next to “The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace?

For additional material, consider reading this article and watching this video.

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