Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Lose Two Sanity - Why Game Mechanics Aren't a Good Source of Public Discourse. by Melissa Devlin

Do you carry around a tube of blood known as your health pool? Does it slowly seep away no matter what kind of injury you have received? Or are metaphorical representations a good way to get a game to work but not really expected to be anything like the real world?

Lets back up. Patrick Lindsey wrote an article about gaming and mental illness, taking issue with two common portrayals of madness: the bat-shit crazy psychopath who does his bad deeds because he’s off his rocker (fair enough), and oddly, the sanity meter in many horror games.

First off, the introduction was very sensitively written, props. Second, I admit that “well he’s a bad guy because he’s nuts” is a little old (British understatement). It also misses the fact that even madness has motivation. We crazy people have reasons for doing the things we do, they just might not be clear.

But I take issue with Lindsey’s first argument. That the mechanics of having a sanity meter even belongs in the discussion of the portrayal of mental illness.  What do I mean? I’m Bipolar I. I’ve had delusions. I’ve had hallucinations. I’ve experienced some really frightening crap. And I really like the idea of a sanity meter.

Why? Because it owes literary allegiance to the Lovecraft idea that seeing too much slowly drains away your ability to cope with the world. And guess what? Sometimes that’s what madness is like. Sometimes the more you see, the harder it is to get by and get over it. Because anyone who says being mentally ill isn’t sometimes scary is lying. The sanity meter also just a device, like a mana pool. A way to quantify terror and the peculiar things it does to anyone’s brain.

I also like the way games toy with you when you run low or worse run out, which Lindsey also objects to. Because, frankly, that isn’t all that different from being either untreated, or what you experience when the meds don’t work. (Yep, that happens). When you are in the grips of an episode, the world just doesn’t work the way it should.

Lindsey makes the point that our view of reality is valid even if it is off. Valid isn’t the same thing as correct. Example? You think you're being followed around by demons. Feeling like you’ve been to hell and back? Valid. Have you actually? Well, no.

Now granted, what I have is pretty severe, and mental illness comes in many varieties. Maybe I’m lucky and I have the workings of some good stories to tell. (Says the optimist.) But to go back to valid, why not let the world see what it’s like to live with a broken perspective?. Because, and here’s where I really take issue with Lindsey, (this is not going to be popular):

There is something wrong with me.

I’ve learnt to cope. I get by. I’m doing better than ever. But I am at a disadvantage when it comes to being part of the normal world. I have to spend a great deal of my energy managing my symptoms, making sure I make sense to my loved ones. There is a difference between having every right to exist this way, which I do, and wishing it on anyone else, which I don't. Do you see the logical difference?

I agree that mental illness is a part of the spectrum of human experience, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck. And I don’t really like the stigma that comes with it. Sure lets stop using madness in place of character development. It’s a bit boring anyway. But horror games that play with the idea that what you see can twist your mind? Lets keep that. Because just for the time that you are playing that game, you know what it’s like when the drugs don’t work.

Sleep well tonight.

Melissa Devlin is a science fiction and fantasy writer from Northern England. She now lives in Petaluma, California with her cat, Sybil. 

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