When video games try to do more than just entertain

I came upon Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest last week while I was keeping up with the current controversy surrounding Gamergate, which was the subject of my last post. Developed by one of the female developers targeted by the Gamergate movement, Depression Quest is certainly a huge move against the typical flashy combat oriented genre blockbusters.

The game is an interactive fiction game where you play as someone living with depression. Something about its blunt confrontation of a darker aspect of life in lieu of escapist entertainment struck a nerve in the gamer community. While it received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, winning several awards, it recieved an onslaught of heated disparagement on comment boards of websites like Metacritic.

The toxicity and severity of the online harassment of Quinn increased exponentially on the day the game was released on Steam. Many of the users argued that such a bleak game shouldn’t be distributed on the marketplace. Angry and incredulous reviews filled the listing page complaining that it didn’t count as a real game because it didn’t try to be fun or that it was boring and “just writing.”  Just like other female writers or developers that have been attacked by Gamergate, Quinn is being targeted for articulating an alternative voice and perspective in gaming. From the onset of the game, it warns that “this game is not meant to be a fun or lighthearted experience.” The intro goes on to explain that the goal is to both help illustrate depression and help those suffering from it to be better heard and understood, as well as raise awareness and destigmatize mental illness. Many psychiatrists and therapists have already begun using the game as a way to educate family member and friends of their patients.

The game takes you through mundane everyday decisions like whether to stay in bed or go to work, or try to muster up the energy to go “socialize at a party.” Stark in its simplicity, it powerfully immerses you into the day to day inner struggles of mental illness. One of the most striking instances of gameplay uniquely expressing the nature of depression is how many of the options in a situation are crossed out in red and actually unavailable. Simple and obvious solutions like “testing the waters and open[ing] up a little, hoping she’ll understand” when trying to explain to your mother what you’re going through, are literally impossible in the game.

Not because they are unknowable but because they are unrealistic and simply unavailable choices for someone with depression. Even when I select the option of later trying to confess my experience to the mother, she just tells me to “snap out of it”, insisting that if I just have a positive attitude and work harder it will all go away. This unique use of the game design subtly expresses that in addition to the mental, psychological and physical symptoms a huge part of depression’s struggle is fending off constant stigma surrounding you, even with from those who love you.

Although somber and unsettling (it took me a few hours to shake off a fog of weariness and introspection after playing the game), it is a refreshing and sobering approach to games. It shows that it doesn’t have to be simply a trivial and lighthearted source of entertainment or leisure but can also educate and create dialogue on more serious social realities. I hope that despite the severe and alarming harassment Quinn is receiving from the Gamergate, others that hope to use gaming to tackle objectives besides entertainment are not discouraged and continue to expand the potential of gaming.

-Diana Zhu


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