Art is really about telling a good story in an entertaining way. Whether you are looking at a beautiful painting, listening to great music, reading a good book or watching a well-constructed movie, the artist (musician, author, director) is trying to transport you to a new world; to expose you to a different point of view. It wants to engage you in an emotional way. When it works, art can move you. It can spur you to action or leave you battling with new concepts and ideas, both good and bad. It has the power of making you happy or sad.
People often say “Write what you know”. They say this because when writers write something honest, something that they know and are interested in, the result is not only a lot more enjoyable for the reader, but also very cathartic for the writer. Most good artists do the same thing, they create from their own experience: painting their own issues; singing about their own journey. So when art has a profound effect on you, you can be sure it has moved the artist too. Video games take this reciprocal relationship one step further. Yes, the goal is still that you are entertained by a good story – but not only is the creator revealing his own joy or his own struggle, but he/she is sharing it with you. Not only are you involved by passively seeing someone else’s story unfold in front of you, but you have an active role in the decision-making process. You carry the story forward. It is an experience, a piece of art, you share with the creator. The story becomes your own. Your struggle. Your joy.
A short while ago, I started to write about video games. As soon as I started digging just a little deeper, I realised how important this idea of a shared gaming experience is. People connect to each other through playing a game. So powerful is this effect that the video game industry has started to become a medium to talk about, cope with and relate to mental and emotional health. Many developers create games that deal with mental or emotional disorders directly, expressing their own struggles. Then, gamers and game writers who are suffering from one form of anxiety or depression or another, play the games and talk about how it affects them. Many have found that gaming helps them to describe or even deal with their own feelings; providing a way of expressing their personal challenges.
I suppose it really shouldn’t be that surprising. In fact, depending on which statistic you read anywhere between 4 to 15% of us struggle with one form of serious mental health issue or another. A press release by the World Health Organisation stated:
One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.
Because these issues are so prevalent, once you see video games as this uber-expressive and shared art form, it begins to make more and more sense that players, writers and creators would easily make use of this platform to handle their feelings. A quick read through Twitter, or spending a short time watching your favourite Twitch, Facebook or YouTube gaming channels and you will see and hear the topic coming up again and again.
A rather inspiring example of this is a video recently produced by Jared Petty – a well-known gaming and entertainment host and content creator from the US. In the first episode of his new series Hop, Blip and a Jump, entitled: “He is the Jumpman”, Petty describes the pivotal role that Mario had on him dealing with his own mental health struggles. Describing Mario’s jumping over obstacles as a metaphor for life, he also talks about how playing video games with the attitude of “Try and try again” is somewhat comparable to a healthy take on life. I really enjoyed it. Give it a watch below:
Mario has also had a profound effect on me. Despite having a great childhood, I still found video games to be a fantastic form of escapism. I loved the worlds I would get transported to. With Super Mario Bros. I found a game that no matter what had gone on before, as soon as I sat down to play, I would be having fun. Nintendo, Miyamoto and their weird, little mushroom kingdom meant that whether it was for just five minutes or five hours, the stresses of the real world would melt away. Last year Odyssey had a similar effect on me. These games are joyous, creating a distinct emotional connection. Something I not only shared with friends, and fellow players, but possibly even the creators themselves.
Celeste, a challenging new retro-style platformer (which seem to be so popular these days) is getting a lot of buzz and many downloads on the eShop. Despite its obvious appeal purely because it is apparently a great tough platforming game, interestingly, the storyline also makes it stand out. The game deals with the main character, Madeline’s, anxiety and depression, using the metaphor of climbing a mountain. Along her trek upwards she meets versions of the damaging inner voices causing her turmoil and must overcome them to move on. Despite it’s limiting, pixelated visuals, an entrancing soundtrack and profound narrative has had many reviewers explain that it tackles this heavy subject in a positive way. And this is just one game among several that handle the topic in a straightforward way. It is this link between video games and emotion, this artistic factor, that I find marvellously compelling.
You see, I have always been fascinated with the subject of mental and emotional health. I find the brain to be fantastically and unendingly interesting. I have always been intensely curious as to how the brain affects the way we interact with each other, and deal with ourselves. An earlier version of me even studied Psychology for four years. Close friends and family members suffer from bi-polar, depression and anxiety in their various forms, and looking back I’m pretty sure I suffered from panic/anxiety attacks on a semi-regular basis when I was younger. This topic has always been there in my life. Similar to video games, really. And now it seems that these two subjects have become inexorably attached in my head.
However, as with much art, it is here we reach a point of marvellous contradiction; the placement of seemingly opposing facts next to each other. Yes, video games are art; A particularly unique form of art in the way it profoundly deals with how we interact with each other and our own emotions. Games can be beautiful and have an uncanny ability to allow us to escape – providing a soothing balm for a painful mind. Yet, despite this, some of those same games also tend to encourage isolation, and spending hours in front of a screen means a lack of real exercise. So in an attempt to escape, we can fall into the trap of excluding factors proven to be essential for good mental and emotional health.
So even this art form may not be enough on its own. Keep looking after yourself. Spend some time with friends. Play games..but choose the right ones. Relax and take time to enjoy them…but, be balanced. Seek help from qualified mental–health professionals if you need it. Do all that, and you will keep being entertained by the wonderful stories that are told, and if you’re lucky even be part of the story yourself.