Video gaming gets a bad rap. It’s either being blamed for causing violent behavior in children or being called out for perpetuating negative stereotypes of women. Game developers at Ninja Theory plan to change all that by releasing Hellblade in 2016 for PS4 and Windows PC. The game focuses on the female warrior, Senua who faces the challenges of mental illness after experiencing trauma as her village is invaded by Vikings.
Strong female protagonists who are not overly-sexualized or turned into damsels in distress are few and far between in the video gaming world; a point brought to the media’s attention by the work of Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency. Hellblade isn’t just groundbreaking as far as gender equality is concerned but in advocating for people living with mental health disorders.
Mental illness is a sensitive topic that often receives a lot of stigma from society at large. I fear that the developers could possibly offend or misinform their users if they haven’t researched the subject thoroughly enough. Thankfully, that’s not the case. A writer at Polygon, Owen S. Good, points out the care and consideration the game developers had while working on this game. He writes
“Ninja Theory says the independent development of Hellblade allows them “the freedom to tackle a subject as challenging as mental health,” and promises the portrayal will be “both accurate and sensitive.””
Ninja Theory is working closely with Wellcome Trust, a non-profit committed to furthering public knowledge on science and health. With their extensive research and the help from Wellcome Trust, it seems likely that Hellblade will provide a precise and positive view of mental illness.
The only part of this video game I am on the fence about is the using Hell as a metaphor for mental illness. Many video games use Hell as something the player much escape from, i.e. Dante’s Inferno or League of Legends. Unfortunately, mental illness isn’t something you can just “level up” to escape. Many conditions can only be managed with medications and therapy. The concept of mental illness as a Hell which you must escape might seem like a hopeless quest when “management” not escape is your best option for treatment. Then again, having Senua fight the Vikings which haunt her sanity does seem very accurate to those with mental illness who might feel like they have to fight their illness every day. It may be that Senua’s victory lies not escaping Hell but in having the resolve to do battle time and time again.
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