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Can a Violent Video Game, Hellblade Promote Positive Attitudes Towards Mental Illness?

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An RtoR SmackDown of the Generations – Millennial vs. Baby Boomer!

The metaphor of mental illness as a kind of living hell within the mind is nothing new.  But Hellblade, the Game?  When I first read that gaming company Ninja Theory wants to provide an “accurate and sensitive” portrayal of mental illness in its combat-based game Hellblade, I thought it was a joke – something I might read on The Onion, not on rtor.org.  But no.  According to my twenty-something Associate Editor, Veronique  Hoebeke, Hellblade is a real game – coming soon to a PS4 near you!

I really like the Internet.  And I think Twitter is the best thing since, well, texting.  But I’m not sure this analog brain of mine is ready for a fully immersive 3D world in which a young female warrior with PTSD, anxiety, depression and psychosis takes on hordes of marauding Vikings that look like demons and are supposed to represent trauma-induced hallucinations brought on by a life of combat.
The last time I played video games with any regularity you had to drop a quarter into a machine roughly the size of a refrigerator for 45 seconds worth of gameplay in vivid black and white.  The sole object of the game was to shoot at approaching asteroids from a little white space ship that must have been the prototype for the modern computer cursor (a precursor to the cursor, so to speak).  Okay, so maybe I’m not qualified to opine on the technology side of today’s gaming industry.  I do, however, know something about mental health and I worry that Hellblade will not be the sensitive treatment of mental illness its developers claim.

It’s encouraging to see that the project is funded in part by the Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation based in the UK.  I must assume that a high-profile charity dedicated to improving “health by supporting bright minds in science, the humanities and social sciences, and public engagement,” would not sign on to a project that was harmful to the cause of mental health awareness and de-stigmatization of mental illness.  Dr. Paul Fletcher, the Cambridge University psychiatrist who consulted on the game, describes the parallels between the subjective experience of his patients with psychosis and the inner world of Senua, the female protagonist of Hellblade.  But I can’t help being troubled at the thought of portraying the inner strife of mental illness as a form of entertainment – and violent entertainment at that.

I thank my colleague Veronique for her feminist perspective on the game.  Let’s hope it really is groundbreaking in its depiction of a “strong female protagonist who (is) not overly sexualized.”  After watching several of the development videos for the game and spotting dozens of male developers, writers, artists, technicians and consultants and only one woman on the company premises, the actor who plays the svelte and physically appealing Senua, I’m a bit skeptical.  Perhaps Ninja Theory should hire Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian to consult on the lead character’s psychological realism, along with Dr. Fletcher.

I know I should wait for the game’s release before I pass judgement.  Maybe it’s the old fogey in me that responds in knee-jerk fashion every time I hear overblown claims about social realism and psychologically deep character development in violent video games.  But there is such a thing as wisdom from experience.

Thirty-five years ago when I was being blown away by the graphics of Asteroids there were no “characters” in our video games and the only female warrior I had ever heard of was Conan’s girlfriend Red Sonja, you know the one with the dysmorphic body proportions and iron-clad bikini armor. Maybe I’m just not ready for a fully realized female game character who kicks butt at the same time she’s struggling with real life mental health issues.


Read part 3 here

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Jay Boll, Editor in Chief www.rtor.org