Sarah McIlwaine, Gerald Jordan, Shalini Lal, Jai Shah, Srividya Iyer, Manuela Ferrari

Sarah McIlwaine

Title of Presentation:
From Floating Brains to Insane Painters: A Qualitative Review of Mental Illness Messages in Video Games

Name of Institution:
Department of Psychiatry, McGill University

Oral Presentation



BACKGROUND: The majority of video game research focuses on the negative impact of video games, describing potential harms related to aggression, addiction, and depression. However, no attention has been devoted to exploring the experience of mental illness in commercial video games, and the impact these games have in the understanding, or the perpetuation of mental illness stereotypes.

METHOD: On Steam (PC gaming platform), we performed keyword searches using terms related to mental illness. A total of 106 games were identified and thematically analyzed for themes about mental illness.

RESULTS: Three key themes were associated with game characters: violence, being lost, helpless, and lonely; and being mentally ill, or “psychotic”. Associated with video game atmosphere, we identified the following themes: abandoned, disturbing and broken spaces (e.g. abandoned asylum); violence, danger and chaos (e.g. violent town); and creepy, and strange ambience. In terms of video game goals, we identified the following themes: solving/uncovering a mystery (e.g. discovering who is real); survival; finding an escape (e.g. escape the asylum); and going back to “normal” (e.g. staying sane). Finally, we unpacked themes related to mental illness: depression and anxiety were associated with suffering and darkness; and psychosis was associated with paranoia, lack of control, having an infection, and/or supernatural experiences.

ONCLUSION: Despite the findings of our review, video games can provide a unique avenue to counter stigmatizing messages; their ability to tell engaging and immersive stories can be used to disseminate alternative, more compelling and compassionate messages about the experience of mental illness.