We talked with behavior specialist and psychotherapist Dr. Anna Myers about representing mental illness in games, how to ease stigmas about mental health, and her work with gaming charity Take This.
Mental illness is a serious issue that often flies under the radar, even among the socially conscious. But that’s why Take This exists—through a combination of working with gamers, developers, and other aspects of the gaming community, this organization aims to ease mental illness stigmas by promoting acceptance, treatment, and safe spaces.
By working with mental health professionals, Take This can help developers improve the accuracy of in-game representations of mental illness, educate the community on the truth and fiction of mental health, and, through a trickle-down effect, improve the lives of everyone involved with more awareness about mental health conditions.
We talked with behavior specialist and psychotherapist Dr. Anna Myers about how the games industry is working to change perceptions of mental illness, including how it’s improving, what work can still be done, and how Take This plays a role.
Bridging the Gap Between Entertainment and Education
Like any medium, games often fictionalize real ideas for entertainment. In games, that fictionalization is often targeted as being irresponsible or damaging, likely due to the medium’s interactive nature. But that interactivity also gives games immense power and, combined with the tight-knit, niche nature of the community, it’s an ideal place to work on improving mental health education, including reducing stigmas tied to mental health.
“The biggest thing at the end of the day is educating the population, educating the community,” said Myers.
With education on mental illness, people are better able to understand that the portrayals they see of conditions like anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia in games are fictionalized and not representative of everyone’s experiences. They’re done for dramatic effect, to draw the player into a fictional world, and through education we can separate the dramatized stories from real experiences.
“It is up to us as the community of mental health providers to inform the general public that [many of these representations are] completely skewed and this is an art form, so it’s meant to lure people in and you’ve done a really good job if you’ve achieved that goal,” Myers said. “[We] should be saying, ‘Here’s the platform that we’ve created for your entertainment, please be mindful that this is a misrepresentation that’s been purposefully skewed of what [these conditions] might look like.”
To achieve that, Myers and Take This encourage the use of appropriate ratings and working with professionals to provide guidance for those developers who want to portray these ideas accurately.
This awareness extends to everybody—if the community is better informed, they’re better able to sift through the mental health fact and fiction for developers, gamers, and non-gamers alike. With education, people are better equipped to handle their own mental health conditions as well as those of others, which, in the long term, will help destroy the common feeling that mental illness is somehow shameful or scary.
Take This Works To Change Mental Illness Stigma
Thanks in part to Take This’ work, these attitudes are beginning to change. By providing AFK rooms at conventions like PAX, gamers who experience social anxiety or just need a break can do so without risking judgment. And by working directly with developers, Take This helps create an environment that’s friendlier and more educational about mental health conditions.
By working with those who want to improve their portrayal, they’re not stepping on the toes of people who are just looking to tell a compelling story. Take This aims to open up a dialog about mental health rather than squash any portrayal, encouraging developers and gamers to think about these topics differently.
“It’s an art form, and it’s there to entertain, it’s not there to diagnose, it’s not there to be your psychologist,” Myers said.
Take This provides a resource that wasn’t always there before, and by offering consultation and real information, we’re seeing more games aiming to portray mental health conditions more sympathetically or actively help people who conditions like anxiety or depression manage their symptoms.
“[Developers] don’t get the advanced training in psychology. We can’t really blame them, but now that we’re educating them, it’s time to own up to that and start working together with mental health providers, and I think we’re doing a really good job of that,” Myers said. “We’re well on our way.”