Tuesday, 9 December 2014

One Flew Away from the Cuckoo's Nest - Representations of Aslylums pt 1

I've talked before about the moral codings and judgements used with respect to madness and mental illness but I feel like it is a subject that is worth expanding on. In order to give a grounding both in terms of how it happens and what it means for our cultural discourse and for the lives of those affected it is worth looking at in detail. I want, therefore, to look at in overview the ways in which we encode the mad in cultural objects and, specifically the way we encode the realm of the mad: the asylum.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest has a lot to answer for when it comes to popular understanding of the asylum as an institution, and to mental illness as enacted within its walls. Ken Kesey's novel is profoundly political, and surprisingly conservative, in a way that is surprising to a new reader who may only know of it through the force of cultural osmosis. Jack Nicholson's is the face of the confined man who needs freedom and Louise Fletcher's that of the oppressive system that denies it, but the novel underlines these characters with a weight of significance that is present if underexplored in the film.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a misogynist text. It is also filled with essentialist racism, although this is more of-it's-time and passive than the misogyny, which is an active thread. That may not seem at first to have a direct bearing on how it relates to and presents the asylum inmate, but it runs through the representations within. Its misogyny is a key tenet of the counter-culture movement that it espouses and to a certain extent the mad are, within the text, objectified and turned into expositional arguments rather than people - a common experience for any mentally ill person in fiction.

Kesey's argument is derived from Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness, as well as Goffman's work on institutions. This in and of itself might not be a problem - the two combined tend towards a view that says asylum inmates are structured in society to be asylum inmates by the very fact that they are in an asylum. That moving from the outside to the inside recasts one's life so that it is seen in terms that justify that movement. McMurphy is the avatar of that idea - it becomes immaterial whether or not he is mad before he enters, and his actions, which in other contexts would be seen as sane are considered mad because of and to justify his current location.

But there is more to it than this. Kesey is, very openly, more interested in story than in truth. The narrator states it outright, and the novel continually distorts the lives of its protagonists into a way that fits the martyr narrative even when it doesn't fit their established characterisation. The final act in particular is damning of mental health professionals in a very callous way (by someone who worked in the profession and seems to have to a certain extent projected his own apathy and disgust for the patients onto the rest of the characters), which has an affect on how people view those workers in the real world.

This is where the misogyny comes in as well. Almost every main character is in the asylum due to the actions of a woman. Specifically, it is due to the actions of a woman who is allowed to have power over a man. Kesey's main statement is that mental illness doesn't exist, but that it is a function of a man's relinquishing of power to a woman. Ratched is specifically shown to be the way she is because she isn't married (another, sympathetic female nurse, who is married, makes the observation). Women are objects either of oppression, or of sex, and the good woman, as in the counter-cultural ideology Kesey was espousing, is one who offers sex freely and without contract to the liberated man - allowing him to be himself fully.

So, the asylum becomes sexualised and the madman (and it is a man here) becomes enthralled by rather than a master of sex.

One of the real shames of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is that, where the story allows the inmates to breathe and to be themselves it becomes liberating and incredibly humane. The depersonalisation of institutions is a real and a terrible thing and, for example, the fishing trip is an absolutely exhilarating read as you feel the power of treating objectified individuals as people once again. It's just a shame that Kesey immediately objectifies them once again as they return to the asylum and he forces them into position for the final part of McMurphy's narrative. The truth, as Kesey sees it, even if it didn't happen. The film version, which is the most well-known, smuggles these ideas into the consciousness of the viewers, keeping the structures that were informed by this set of intentions without showing the working.

The asylum, as befits a home for the mad, has always, like the mad, had a life that is not always its own. It is a political and theoretical battleground, an object with which to score points as much as a machine for housing dysfunction. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is like a case study and an exemplar for this tendency. It is not about the mad and their lives, it is about how a place of madness distorts the landscape (politically, mythologically, theoretically, geographically etc.) and allows for vested interests to make for themselves a place of power.

This distortion is in line with representations of asylums across the spectrum. They become places where 'the veil is thin', so to speak, often allowing for demons, or generally malign psychic phenomena, to break through and make a home for themselves. (Demonic power and female power are so closely linked in religious patriarchy as it is.) Sometimes it is the passions of the mad; the explosion of constrained female sexual energy that manifests as poltergeist, the gravetic horror of male sexual depredation drawing interlopers to the cusp of that abyss. Sometimes it is the experimentation of the wardens; making playthings of madness until it becomes an affliction that can be used to punish, rather than an illness that should be cared for.

The asylum often defaults to a place of horror in the popular imagination, even the images from One Flew Over are wrapped into horror tropes when recycled into other media. The very real horrors of institutionalisation, and of the personal experiences that lead to it being an option that makes even any sort of sense for a person, are compounded by media representations. Images and concepts of horror become normalised in the rhetoric of madness so that a complicated, layered image such as this one, which shows a disused hospital room that has been re-purposed into a b-movie set, can be shared as and believed uncritically to represent 'an abandoned mental hospital', despite the truth being more fascinating. A common misconception of what it is to be mad, of what it means to be the kind of person who would belong in an asylum, is that concepts of fiction and reality blend into one another and become indistinguishable. And yet, our concept of the asylum itself is one that has become indistinguishable from the fiction that surrounds it.

The asylum itself becomes, then, a magical space: transforming both those inside and those outside of it; distorting the light that shines through it. The modern psych ward contains within it the Victorian insane asylum. The image is the thing itself; a superimposition illusion, both ladies and vase, duck and rabbit, Bedlam and Broadmoor. The asylum is a place that fascinates us but to which we wish we will never go, which is how it can be all these things at once.

This magical nature is in line with Kesey's use as well, in that the asylum is both itself and a political tool. It is a place where truth can be re-written into Truth, which is to say the fictional concept of what should be rather than the mundane concept of what is. In part two of this essay I will look into that concept further. Into the idea of asylums as magical spaces and the way that they mirror some other types of magical space such as the hotel and the private sanatorium.

This post has been funded by Patreon.

Monday, 3 November 2014


I've made a decision.

This project has fallen by the wayside recently with various other responsibilities and plans taking precedence, but I don't want to abandon it because I think that there is good work that I can do here. I don't intend to abandon it, but I have set up a Patreon to help fund the costs associated with it (in terms of research materials, books and games that I might not otherwise have played) and to help with pushing it up in my list of priorities. I don't expect people to pledge very much, and I won't be paywalling anything I write but if you did want to show support it would certainly help with getting this blog moving again. More information can be found over at my Patreon page.

Thanks for reading, and let me know any comments you might have about this decision.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Dark Souls, Depression and Me

I thought I knew what I was going to want to say about Dark Souls before I started playing it. I knew it started in an asylum, usually coded in games and other media as a place of incarceration for the mad, and it centred around a concept of undeath as a meaningless and hollow existence of repetition without humanity. I had heard fans talk about it as a bleak world in which you struggle against madness, that this was coded as a descent, and I assumed that I would be writing about damaging representations of mental illness, of stigmatising depictions of the mad as violent, worthless and degraded. There is still, possibly, that article to be written, but having played it for some 25 hours by now that isn't the article I want to write. Dark Souls is a strange, elegiac game that borrows from the structure of RPGs but isn't one. It is slippery and gossamer, and it represents without representing. It is beloved of people I know to be depressed and I think I now know why.

The weirdest thing is how nothing changes. Even when you kill a boss the world just gets emptier. The rush of a major victory, a completed project, is swiftly swallowed by the continuation of life's grinding work and daily battles. Worse, it can never be revisited, either for the joy of a challenge or to test oneself again if the battle is felt to have been unfairly won.

I talked before about how I play role-playing games when depressed to experience the feeling of change; to know that change is both possible and meaningful even in some abstract sense. Dark Souls denies this bodily. There are changes happening within the world as you play - small subplots that play out around you and helpful souls who can be gathered around the Firelink Shrine, but it is thin and these people all seem as tired and despondent as you. They know that their actions too can only destroy, that they exist in a world centred on your own self destructive impulses and that all that they can do is watch and help and leave you to it. Their attempts to do more are what left them hurt, trapped and afraid, lost somewhere in the maze of your psychodrama; their release yours alone to grant them.

I'm on citalopram right now, which means that my lows are of a different quality to those I might have unmedicated. I am also in a low, or have been for the last week or so. Taken together this means that my motivation and concentration is completely shot, but at least I'm not having to deal with self-loathing and intrusive thoughts in any great respect. In this situation a good mechanical grind of a game is exactly what I need which is probably why I've been playing Dark Souls every night this week whilst for the month before it was much more on and off. But it is difficult to tell if the emotional distance of the game is inherent or a product of my medication.

I think that it is inherent to the game. The weirdest thing is how nothing changes. Even as you accrue rare weapons and pick up pre-placed item-drops the world just gets emptier. A corpse you looted reverts from a glowing beacon of promise to a dull reminder that what you got was probably not what you wanted anyway.
Hollow and hardy.

I have been playing the game primarily internally. I found myself rereading Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman and will probably reread Robert Rankin's Sprout Mask Replica trilogy too as a supplement to my internal life with the game. I think I look more interesting, more embodied in myself, when I am hollow than when I am human. But there is nothing in the text to support this, beyond the mechanic of struggle. Humanity is a face, a front. It is something that must be maintained against all odds, that can be lost with a single mistake and is ultimately worthless for anything other than material gain. I find it better to embrace hollowness, to be at one with the world and not fight it. To allow my mistakes, the lows which I know that I will always have, to be themselves rather than the thing that destroys my careful house of cards, my constructed 'normal' life, my façade of sanity. "Because the best shield is to accept the pain, Then what can really destroy me?".
Still human after all these years
A pretence at being real.

For all of this, I don't really know anything about myself, or rather my character, in this world. It is strange, pertinent maybe, that I am referring to my character as myself as this is something I usually never do with RPGs. With RPGs I play characters and I make decisions based on what they would do, not me. I started with this in mind whilst on the Dark Souls character select screen but the brutal lack of choice coupled with the continuity of experience implied by the death mechanic has eroded any distance between my own and my character's point of view. We are contiguous in what we see and what we feel. We explore this world together and at the same pace - she is not a distinct being, able to benefit in her final form from my knowledge as a player and my manipulation of her timestream through judicious save states and cancelled futures. Where I fail she fails, and where she picks herself up again I must do the same.

And of course, the weirdest thing is how nothing changes. The same enemies patrol in the same patterns as ever. The joy of a new face, of a different experience is subjugated, it is singular and can be used up and when it is the world just gets emptier. The world gets wider, and one day it will be an experience that is completed, its limit reached in both time and space, but at its core is loss.

In this way, it is like life.


(I would like to point to the article by Line Hollis in issue 1 of the Arcade Review as a brilliant piece of writing that explores some similar themes.)

Monday, 2 June 2014

Still Here

I am still here and I am still writing. I have, as I think I've mentioned before, a post on the cultural position of asylums in the pipeline which, once completed, should be the last of the theoretical and background posts that I need to write before I can start exploring the implications of some of these representations in games, both as a part of the media landscape and as objects of play. The problem is that, the more reading I do the more reading I want to do. Having finished Foucault's Discipline and Punish I immediately started on Goffman's Asylums. Meanwhile my fiction reading list has included One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. I even found myself contemplating reading Norwegian Wood, which I have only seen the film of, to ensure the accuracy of what will probably be a single sentence of comparison.

I am basically using this blog as an excuse to motivate myself to do things that, although I enjoy, are very easy for me to put off doing in the face of the opportunity of staring at a wall and experiencing the existential dread of the nihilation of nothing and feeling really sad about everything. Also making sure that I don't only read Horus Heresy novels whilst eating crisps in front of BBC4 quiz shows.

Having said that, I have still been writing. The Ontological Geek has just posted the first of what should be an ongoing, if irregular, series on the links between tabletop and video games, with a particular focus on Dungeons & Dragons. I'm also working on another exciting piece that I will hopefully be able to talk about more in a few weeks' time.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Peripheral Visions

I've written before, sometimes in slightly more polemical terms, about the ways in which games try to present the experience of madness and to impart that information to the player. Right now, however, and for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table I thought I'd look closely at the point of interface between player and game rather than at systems or audio visual vectors. This is an important area of contact between the player and the game, but the relative lack of representational power means that it is something that is relatively easy to overlook in discussions of representation. 

Although I did mention some of the ideas that follow in my post on the physical aspects of suffering from what are usually classified as (solely) mental illnesses that was a very personal post and so here I want to look at things from a slightly more general position. I'm also going to expand my remit slightly to include emotional and psychological aspects of all stripes, not just madness, because as this is an exploratory post rather than a response to any one game or issue I think it is worth remembering that mental illness is just a subset of mental experience; that it is not a state to be held apart from sanity but that they are both facets of the same human experience.

I can't find an image credit for this, despite searching,
so holler if it's yours.
As with much tech-futurism there can often be a teleological narrative around controllers, i.e. a belief that there is an idealised end-point, most likely one where the object of the controller itself has become invisible or indistinguishable from the activity of the game, towards which every instanced controller to date is a direct causal link. This can be seen in the marketing and the evangelism that surrounds new controllers, as well as the misappropriated and pseudo-Darwinian language of linear evolution towards a higher being. 

This futurism however hides a number of practical and real-world complications, not least of which is that, like with real evolution, earlier adaptations are not necessarily either inferior or obsolete. It also ends up with genuine innovation or divergent lineages with divergent applications being re-imagined into the central narrative so that something like the Wii ends up explained as a faltering step towards a homogenised future rather than a genuinely alternate way of playing. As well, the aim of effortless play, as so often hinted at by the focus on ergonomic innovations and 'instinctive' control schemes in next-generation rhetoric, papers over the way in which using a given controller or input method is a learned skill. 

The actual lived experience of being or becoming a player of video games is one of negotiating a landscape of input devices, learning and internalising layouts and iterating set-ups, both in terms of the physical objects and the input mapping, until they are aligned as closely as possible to one's unique physical needs. As a concrete example of how all of the above come together, both my partner and I are equally proficient at the SNES game Donkey Kong Country 2, having repeatedly beaten it when younger. If we replay the game today, however, our performances are significantly affected by which of the two controllers we now own is plugged in, either a classic controller or a non-branded turbo version, as well as how the sofa and TV are set up at the time. Similarly, despite the controller being objectively better, I find playing ported 8- and 16-bit games on my XBox a distinctly unsatisfactory experience and I do not believe that I am alone in this. The game itself cannot be divorced from the physical act of playing it.

All of the above is, I believe, relatively uncontroversial; amounting essentially to: using computers is a skill and everyone is slightly different. I felt it was worth stating in those slightly expanded terms to ground where I'm coming from in the rest of this post and to ensure that my assumptions are clear.
Controller feedback, which seemed so ripe with possibilities when Nintendo announced their revolutionary Rumble Pak accessory for the N64, has since stalled into merely fine-tuning those vibrating hotter/colder clues and death shocks. It is true that there are examples of feedback that are very cleverly deployed but there's also an awful lot of vibration for the sake of it, and despite my fevered imaginings there doesn't seem to be any other form of tactile, physical feedback through controllers in the pipeline. 

In some ways I'm glad. I have no great desire to shackle myself into some kind of full body harness to be able to experience more fully the horrific situations most action game characters find themselves in. (The joke in Red Dwarf's VR episodes being that the only attachment they have other than the headset is for your groin). In the main the most successful and enhancing feedback set-ups are those used for simulations, making a steering wheel resist on a difficult turn or go floppy at high speeds for example, where the aim is accuracy of a measurable representation rather than the imparting of narrative or psychological nuance. 

If we look first at horror games, then, as madness and horror are so heavily linked in our cultural imaginations, we can begin to see the current state of play. Unsurprisingly the majority of games, even those without a sanity meter as such, will embellish tension, damage, surprise and death with jolts and rumbles. This is, to be honest, relatively uninteresting as it is just that: an embellishment. Done well it may increase both tension and catharsis, but it cannot do anything to inform your experience of the character or their embodied situation as we do not tend to experience our emotions, beyond maybe certain aspects of nervousness, predominantly in our hands. The rumble feature is still a one way vector of information from the game to the player, generally ignoring the fact that the controller has an often unique position as the one method the player has of connecting with and influencing the game.

More interesting then, are the techniques that involve the player in the mechanics of the game by manipulating the way in which they have learned to use and internalised a control scheme. David Cage's games have relied on this heavily with mixed success, but the techniques pioneered in Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy) have begun finding their way into the general language of adventure games. These are the sort of semi-quicktime events that, rather than telling you to 'press X not to die' encourage you to manipulate the controls in a way analogous to the onscreen action required. It can be a fine fit though, and often as not the artificiality of the movements only highlights how separated you are from the game world and how much the controller is a barrier. I loved Skyward Sword but found myself battling and subjugating the control scheme as much as the bosses, refining my movements to the minimal possible levels to get closer to the expertise I'd experienced during Twilight Princess (which I played on the Game Cube).

At its best, enacting emotionally charged events through a controller or input device (and this has certainly been made a much easier link to forge with the advent of analogue-as-standard console peripherals) which has become an embodied part of the player-as-player can ensure both player and game are infused with that emotion. The joy I get when executing perfect combos in Bayonetta, or clearing the first level of DKC2 via muscle memory alone is the same embodied joy I got dodging tackles when I used to play rugby as a teen. Similarly, there's a bit near the end of Season 1 of The Walking Dead where you dig a grave, and the game forces you to do it with agonising repetition and through a semi-analogue control scheme it's spent ten hours or so teaching you and it made me feel truly wretched in exactly the way it should have done. The future, for me, is in the integration of these different modes of mastery and control to provide appropriate registers of feeling and engagement throughout a game's passage. The recent Tomb Raider game I think provides a great example of  this, with emotionally charged moments given a more analogue input scheme compared to the somewhat more traditional, and hugely enjoyable, nature of the rest of the game.

There are other ways in which games have made the nature and the fact of the controller more apparent to the player. I have not played but have heard repeatedly of the meta-textual nature of Metal Gear Solid games, although they seem to be focusing more on commentating about the fact of the game rather than engaging the player on an emotional level. A standard trope in platform games of a certain vintage is an attack which temporarily reverses the controls, but again this is a challenge to the skills and integration of the player-controller more than it is a rejection of that symbiosis. A couple of the sanity effects in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem hinge on showing in-game actions being taken without input from the player as a form of horror, but I always found the telegraphed nature of sanity loss as well as the schlocky nature of the effects meant they were never particularly effective.

The idea of loss of control over the game is an interesting one, as it breaks the trust that is intrinsic to the player-controller interface. It also speaks to the fear of madness as a fear of loss of control over one's mind and body, or the rewiring of mechanisms of being that were taken for granted. A game which does things that the player doesn't want would have to work hard to keep the player playing, however. We don't go mad suddenly on the whole, as most popular representations would have you believe, but by degrees and in self-reinforcing feedback loops. If only a game could somehow convince us, by hiding the gauges and the knowledge of the causes of failure and by introducing the slips of control imperceptibly at first, that we were at fault for missing that jump or that combo. Then it might better model the creeping dread, the gradual anxiety and the replacement of healthy habits with maladjusted ones that typifies the experience of losing control to a mental illness. Of course, that game might be indistinguishable from a merely terribly designed and badly tested game; I may have just suggested Big Rigs Racing as the Ur-madness simulator.

This, finally, brings me right back to what could well be considered the least advanced of input methods, yet which I think has the best chance of lying successfully to the player. The keyboard and mouse set up used for playing interactive fiction and point and click adventure games is both simple to learn, in that you need to if you want to use any computer at all, and yet provides scope for a much larger range of interaction. These games are also, as they rely less on realism and more on literary techniques of constrained viewpoints, better able to lie to players about what is and isn't happening. Adam Cadre's 9:05 being a beautiful and short case in point. Cadre's Photopia also highlights the ability of a game like this to effectively play itself at points in order to make emotional and psychological impacts, which is possible mainly because of the turn based nature of interactive fiction - even though you are being guided you don't feel like you are being taken through a cutscene.

Interactive fiction is still a learned form of interface, however, so a lot of the tricks that might work on the input level still require a knowledge of what to expect in the first place. This is mitigated somewhat in games like Jon Ingold's Fail Safe or Introversion's Uplink, which work to highlight the computer they are being played upon (and so simultaneously the person doing the playing) as an object within the game world rather than a portal into it, bringing the game-player interface closer to the surface. This urge can also be seen in the FMV games of the 90s which trace their lineage to graphical adventure games as well as more modern engines like Twine. Twine and the like at least initially borrow from the aesthetic and experience of navigating a web browser which is itself a learned skill so integral to modern work and leisure that many people have, as with me and the SNES, forgotten quite how learned it is.

The question then that was posed by Blogs of the Round Table is one of the future of input schemes. I'm not sure I've covered everything that I could, but I think that the future of using inputs to connect and link players emotionally and psychologically with the games that they play is one in which existing methods are mined for their strengths rather than replaced completely. Where we remember the physical joy of dance mats and plastic guitars and light guns over a promised future of mime and thought control. Where stories are told with the tools that tell them best, not just the newest tools in the box.

(A couple of links. Brendan Keogh talks about the player as cyborg, and the interface as a generative space here while everygame talks about the learned nature of game interactions and how that affects the way a game's 'message' might be imparted to those with different skill levels in his review of Cart Life)

Monday, 24 March 2014

I Recorded a Podcast on Asylums for The Ontological Geek

I was a guest on the Ontological Geek's second podcast, which is posted here. I had a really great time recording it with Oscar, Aaron and my fellow guest Rowan and I think we covered a lot of interesting ground. Especially the bit about Zuma's Revenge. The lead topic for the episode is the depiction of asylums in games - a topic I will be writing about in more detail myself sooner or later - and so should be of interest to readers of this blog. I would like to thank Aaron and Oscar for inviting me to join them and especially Oscar for doing all the hard work of editing and in Aaron's case staying up til four in the morning to talk to us Europeans.

One of the things that became really clear to me during the course of the discussion, or rather was reiterated for me, was how crucial it is to avoid one-size-fits-all thinking when it comes to mental health issues. Despite the fact that they are both covered under the aegis of psychiatry and neuroscience, and are both often defined with recourse to the DSM, I think that it is clear to say that mine and Rowan's conditions (for want of a better word) affect us and our lives in very different manners. As such our fears and expectations of, as well as our hopes and requirements from, the mental health system are necessarily different in many respects and negotiating and teasing apart these differences is vital if we are to ensure that people get the support, help and the respect that they need and are entitled to.

The idea of neurodiversity is a serious one and should be considered in the same way as physical diversity, i.e. as a way of conceptualising that people have a range of different needs, rather than as a buzzword signifying yet another binary division. I discussed an earlier draft of this post with him and Rowan was very clear that he is Aspie and that that is a disability (in that it is something that abled society uses to deny him agency) whereas I view my depression as something closer to a recurring illness, as well as a madness, and that these are both valid ways of approaching these conditions.

Madness as anything undesirable.
We also discussed briefly the sort of people-first language which I delineated in an earlier post and how that is not relevant in the context of autism-as-disability. I had never really intended to cover, or to have this blog as something that could be viewed to cover, autism because I don't think that it can necessarily be described as a mental illness, although even now I’m not sure about this distinction. However, I hadn't really thought of it as a position that needed to be made clear, mainly because my knowledge of autism and of disability is so limited. As such, I still stand by my previous post but with the caveat that I'm talking about one thing but that people may be reading it as about something different. The history of institutionalisation is one that amply illustrates the way in which disparate and discrete categories can become conflated in both the public and the bureaucratic mindset to no-one's advantage.

There is a long history of, as part of and alongside the labelling and diagnostic project of psychiatry, a move towards hierarchising those with mental health problems and setting them against one another. Experiments such as Milton Rokeach's on the 'Three Christs of Ypsilanti', where three men who all believed they were Christ were grouped together and essentially left to fight it out, have entered the folklore of mental illness. A trope which we briefly mentioned in the discussion was that of asylum inmates, who have been clearly coded as mad, who profess that they are sane whilst everyone around them is not. Whilst this is sometimes done in order to present the argument that 'maybe everyone is really insane' it just as often serves to promote a race amongst these fictional patients toward the heavily normalised (and clearly rewarded, most frequently with freedom) end-state of being sane; a race that it is explicitly suggested is codified as zero-sum: you win it by throwing your fellow competitors under a bus. As with all tropes these ideas bleed through into common parlance and knowledge and are reinforced by then being shown again and again, taking on a truth value quite divorced from the original observation that will have led to the first usage.

Participating in this discussion, and working through the points it raised up, has helped me to come to realise how important it is to resist that, often internalised, competition. (Marketplaces of internalised competition and the damage they do to unity is a key part of feminist theory and I'm somewhat disappointed with myself that I've only just applied it to this situation now.) It has also helped me to understand and contextualise my own reactions to this competition arising in and affecting my life. These include things as simple and hidden as the sense that being on or off drugs, or in or out of therapy are more or less desirable states for any external reason to a person’s own well-being, as well as the more obvious badges of ‘honour’ such as never having been hospitalised.

I want to mention briefly a specific piece of writing by Jordan Erica Webber, in issue 3 of Five out of Ten magazine. I reread it in preparation for the podcast but it has also been playing on my mind in a nagging fashion since I first read it a few months ago and I single it out not to attack the writer but because I think it illustrates perfectly what I have been talking about just now. Webber, who has Asperger's Syndrome, describes discovering something about an important character in Borderlands in what is for the game itself an apparently throwaway aside.
"... we’re using our headsets to abuse the characters rather than each other. In this case, we’re undertaking missions for Patricia Tannis, whom we hate because her mental instability caused her to betray us in the previous game. She deals out our next task with a typically psychotic comment, and the mission description itself – which doesn’t come from her – reads:

How did an insane introvert with Asperger’s manage to survive in Sanctuary?

My body reacts like I’ve seen a horrible accident too far away to intervene."

What is interesting to me is that the exact same feeling of sickness that Webber goes on to describe is what I myself felt reading the article. It feels as if, whilst invoking the psychiatric system she has been a part of since childhood, Webber separates her own condition from a morass of conditions that can be described without much reflection as insanity and which are presented as valid reasons to hate or devalue the experience of a character. It is only when the specific diagnosis is given that she seems to make the leap toward association and wants to elevate the character from stigma and stereotype, ending the article with the note that Tannis is ‘partly unlikable, partly insane, and partly a bit like me.’

I spoke to Webber and she was dismayed to discover that this was what I took away from the piece. On the subject of having a ‘valid reason to hate’ Tannis she remarked that it was the betrayal that she had been referring to and that the the reason for the betrayal is being presented as a valueless aside for imparting extra information relevant to the thrust of the argument. However, I could only read the sentence quoted above as implying the ‘mental instability’ to be a causal factor in the betrayal that heightens rather than lessens the sting of it. In other words, I read it as saying that to be betrayed because of an illness is worse than being betrayed for the sound and logical reasons of the betrayer being a nasty piece of work. This stung because there is a long history of representation of mental illness as a moral failing or as being synonymous with evil or malice that the text, here, seems to me to be uninterested in countering.

Webber was clear that the article was about her internalised feelings of negativity about her own mental illness rather than any attempt to place herself above or to compete with other sufferers and I accept and am happy to stress that. I must also stress that I did enjoy and do recommend the article and its exploration of ambivalence to and acceptance of characters that are imperfect or offensive representations of the labels that have been used to define you. I also think, however, that this is an illustration of the internalised, and therefore often invisible, nature of the competition that I attempted to tease out above - an imposition of hierarchy which I myself have been, and no doubt am still, guilty of. Even the fact that I reacted like that, believing that Webber was until that point putting herself above ‘the typically psychotic’ Tannis is evidence of that.

As is Webber's eventual relationship to Borderlands, my relationship to her article is now ultimately fraught with contradiction. We are both glad for the opportunity to relate and for representation to be at least somewhat advanced, but reminded of the hold that the structures that seek to erase or delegitimise our experience still have. I am glad also that Webber took the time to speak to me about my concerns and to clear up the intention behind the words. Maybe the goal, the escape from the asylum as it is constructed both physically and metaphorically, should not be sanity as such; a badge and with it a special dispensation to join the outside world. Instead we need a meaningful engagement with and discussion of what either madness or neurodiversity, in all of their multifarious forms, might actually be.

Friday, 7 March 2014


The absolute key here is that, when you are talking about real people, especially in reportage or descriptive prose, you talk about the person first. These guidelines for journalists and other media workers from Time to Change are a good resource, especially the Mind Your Language page, but if you take one thing away from this post it should be this: a person who suffers from an illness is not defined by that illness and you have no right to so define them when you refer to them. If an illness or condition or whatever is essential to an article or to a point that is being made then, with their consent, you should describe someone using a formula along the lines of '[person] with [diagnosis]', otherwise, there's just no need to mention it.

Of course, it gets more complicated than that, so I'm going to delineate a little bit my own position and some of the issues around it. But, if you are in any doubt remember that you're talking about people so your default position should be one of respect and compassion. (That goes for all issues of representation and terminology, actually, not just when talking about health issues.)

If you follow me on twitter you may have noticed that in my profile I call myself a 'depressed games blogger', in stark contravention of my advice above. This is partly because it's my space and I can do what I want within it. Part of what I use my twitter account for is to talk about my depression and my games blogging about being depressed so it is a relevant introduction to what you might find in my feed. Bios like that are always invented personalities, highlighting what the (auto)biographer considers relevant and informing the reader as to the implied author for a given body of work. The definition-first convention that has appeared in many social media  profiles is also, I think, part of that process of negotiating the constructed nature of people's online personalities. This is not to say that these constructs are false or artificial either, just that they are in effect an edited highlights package for a particular (implied) audience. By bullet-pointing self-definitions you can unobtrusively set out what sort of person you intend to be within a given online space, in lieu of the visual and social cues that might be available to you in an offline space.

There are for example a number of other mini-bios for myself floating around out there and in the majority of those I don't mention depression because it isn't relevant to what I use those spaces to talk about. Which leads into another important point about self-definition in distributed and discrete spaces; just because you see someone use a term (or allow a term to be used) to describe themselves in one context it doesn't automatically make the term relevant in all contexts.

Mental Health terminology should not be used pejoratively. That really ought to go without saying, but unfortunately it still needs repeating. Terms like 'psycho' and 'schizo' are stigmatising and inaccurate, while even the correct terms, for example schizophrenic, need to be handled with care. This is especially important considering the tendency for people to use those terms within a moral framework; i.e. when discussing criminality and evil or unpleasant acts. Having a mental illness is not a reliable explanation for these acts and as such mental illness diagnoses should not be used as synonyms for them. Similarly, saying someone did something that you dislike because they are 'insane' is damaging because it suggests that the insane are inherently dislikable, whilst simultaneously normalising your own preferences under the banner of 'sanity'.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I agree with the (extreme) position in mental health advocacy and discourse that would like to excise words like 'mad' and 'crazy' from the language completely. That should be at least partly clear from the title of this blog, as well as from the way I talk about those concepts. There are two main reasons for my view on this. The first is that I think the concept of, especially, madness is one that goes beyond the concept of mental health and that to lose it would be to inescapably fall into the diagnostic trap I have talked about elsewhere in this blog. It's not that the diagnosis and categorisation of mental states is a bad way of talking about these concepts, on the contrary, it is just that it should not be the only way. The second reason is more personal, in that I like the explanatory power of the terms; I am sometimes crazy, and I have had days that, objectively, have felt insane.

There is a fine line between stigma and description here, but I think that in this particular case it is a place for negotiation rather than proscription, but I cannot speak for everyone.Recently, Zoya Street asked the following question on twitter:

I think that the responses that he got are instructive and it is worth clicking through to the tweet to see the entire discussion. You can see as well how my gut response changed as the nature of the context in which the word was being used came out. I also think that the term sociopath, similar to the term psychopath which I discussed in a previous post, is a slightly different case to the diagnostic labels I mentioned a few paragraphs ago anyway. As I understand it it is, even more so than most psychiatric labels, a cultural construction for talking about certain types of behaviour and is less likely to be used in a clinical setting than popular culture would have you believe. I still don't think it's healthy to label someone a sociopath just because you don't agree with them or they don't care about you, but it can be useful when you need to talk about emotional response, and there remains a useful fictive power in the idea.

Given that this is my position, I'm not always going to get things right, although I do think carefully about my usage of various terms in my writing. As this is a space where I write both descriptively and polemically I sometimes use constructions that cut close to the bone for emotional or political effect rather than comfort. Provided that the space is one where that sort of use can be reasonably expected, and the clear intent is to challenge rather than uphold stigmatising or offensive power structures then I would argue that this kind of use is legitimate. Again, however, it should not be considered a licence to throw around insults in any given situation or to describe real people in ways that they would not want to be described.

Except, in a blog that deals with fictions and artworks a lot of the time we are not going to be discussing real people, and that again changes the outlook somewhat. For a creator of fictional people the advice remains the same: they should be a person before they are a diagnosis. But when dealing with pre-existing characters, although you may try your best to view them as a person, sometimes they are clearly written only as a diagnosis. In this case, especially if you are focusing on the textual aspects of the character then you may find that you have no choice but to engage with them as the diagnosis. This is, in my opinion, fine as long as you remain aware that you are dealing with a fictional character and that if they are written that one-dimensionally then what they might be able to tell you about real people with the same condition is almost certainly very limited. And if you love that character and want them to be more than they are then my advice: kill that author, get metatextual and start writing fanfiction, even if it's just in your head.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Insufficent Memory

I have an essay in the latest issue of gaming and history e-zine Memory Insufficient. This month's theme is the history of ecology in games and there are two other essays, both really strong and interesting pieces, alongside mine which look at the flaws in the concept of natural balance and at visions of post-apocalyptic futures and how they relate to climate disaster. I've written a quite post-modern piece about the Gaia hypothesis (sort of), which is in a very different register to most of what I write for this blog. If you have an interest in games and like how I write then hopefully you will also like that piece so please do check it out.

On the other hand, if you read my piece in Memory Insufficient and ended up here via the bio then hello, nice to see you, and please note that this blog is nowhere near as post-modern or structurally complex as that essay. You can find out more in the links above, but the short version is that I write about representations of mental health issues in gaming and talk about my own experiences of depression and how they relate to my experiences playing games. I did write a somewhat post-modern blog for a while called Things I Failed to Do which is generally quite bad but has a few nice entries in it.

Also, if you like post-modern, heavily structurally significant essays on pop culture though I would recommend reading Philip Sandifer's blog, or for specifically game related work his long-abandoned Nintendo Project. Sandifer has definitely been an influence for me; not only do I really enjoy his writing I am indebted to it for demonstrating how to do the encoding-meaning-in-structure technique well and for generally getting me keyed in to the idea of blogging to a structure as a way of keeping writing as I was coming to the natural end of my small press comics phase.

Friday, 17 January 2014

What Makes a Psychopath?

I came across an interesting paper via Mind Hacks recently on portrayals of psychopaths in cinema. It is something of a given that mental health is portrayed overwhelmingly negatively and inaccurately in the media, and that is something that I've talked about before on this blog. In this paper however, Leistedt and Linkowski were interested in looking at that depiction in a closer and more methodical fashion, analysing 126 film psychopaths against current criteria. Unfortunately the paper is locked as it has a wonderfully dry humour accentuated by the constraints academic language but the key points are summarised nicely in that Mind Hacks post.

It did get me to thinking about doing a similar exercise with games, although I have neither the time, resources nor the expertise to do a review of that scope. Again, as with most media, games have a real problem of labelling individuals as psychopathic when they actually aren't and so a great many members of our subject pool would be automatically disqualified. Even then there should be enough to make a survey, although I imagine that they would come mainly from the less-narratively heavy end of the spectrum than most people would expect.

Psychopathy is a funny old disorder in that it is beloved of melodrama and yet the more lurid the invocation the less likely it is to be accurate. Writers like the concept as an explanation for evil acts and yet by definition it has no moralistic explanatory power. In some ways it's fine if you want a villain to commit random violent acts to establish them as a psychopath (although it isn't really) as in many ways the term psychopath is one we use to get an intellectual handle on people who commit random violent acts (although this has been expanded). The problem arises when that label becomes established as a synonym for a certain kind of villain and then writers seeking greater sophistication but lacking the psychological awareness attempt to get into the mind of the character. I am absolutely all for better-rounded villains, but essentially as you provide (emotional) motivation you degrade the integrity of your original diagnosis: as one of the key aspects of psychopathy is invulnerability you cannot retain the right to call your villain a psychopath even as you make them vulnerable.

I'm talking a lot about villains here, but I'm doing so because Leistedt and Linkowski do so too. It is almost a given in their paper that it is always the villains who display psychopathic behaviour. Partly I think this is to do with the general sense in which  psychopathy has become a moralistic concept; its essential amorality being consistently read as immorality, and partly it is as they say that psychopathy lends villains danger and intrigue. I also think it is a function of genre expectations, in that when for instance an action film protagonist acts in ways that might in other contexts be considered as psychopathic we don't consider it to be so because they are acting in-genre and we recognise that and so parse their behaviour accordingly. In many of his films James Bond is almost certainly a psychopath, for example, and although this is sometimes made explicit and sometime lampshaded it is usually excused in a way that the psychopathy of the villains he meets is not. Meanwhile numerous films and heroes are based on the Bond model without even that complexity and with the assumption instead that their heroes are just acting heroically.

What does this mean for video games though? It would be easy to shrug and to say that a great many video game protagonists are psychopathic and that by extension they engage players in episodes of psychopathy; and a great many people do say this. It’s all there: the violence, the lack of empathy, the erratic and impulsive behaviour and the emotional invulnerability; I never once saw Mario shed a tear over the first goomba let alone the thousandth. These particular extracts from Liestedt and Linkowski particularly struck a cord with me, especially if you consider the perfect no-deaths playthrough of any particular game to be the canonical version of the events depicted.

"In these slasher films, psychopathic characters are generally unrealistic, accumulating many traits and characteristics, such as sadism, intelligence, and the ability to predict the plan that the future victims will use to escape."

"Psychopaths in films generally possess a number of standard characteristics that are not necessarily as common among real-life psychopaths, ... The traditional “Hollywood psychopath,” generally found before 2000, is likely to exhibit some or all of the following traits ... (ii) a somewhat vain, stylish, almost “cat-like” demeanor; ... (iv) a calm, calculating and always-in-control attitude; and (v) unrealistic, exceptional skill at killing people, especially with blades or household objects (sometimes overpowering multiple assailants with superior armament). These traits, especially in combination, are generally not present in real psychopaths."

So yes, we could say that video games make us inhabit the lives and minds of psychopaths and blunt our capacity to feel in the process but I think that that would be both grossly unfair, to players, game characters and psychopaths alike. the key sentence in those extracts is the last. As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago this is more a question of genre; these characters are not psychopaths within the rules of the world that they live in. To say 'why aren't video game characters more like real humans?' is to miss the point that they fundamentally aren't real humans but are artistic representations of humans instead. The reason I don't feel it as jarringly out of character for Lara Croft to kill hundreds of grunts but feel sad about her dead mate is the same reason I don't feel it is jarringly out of character for Arnie to kill hundreds of grunts in Commando but feel sad about his dead mate. The art, unless you're in a movement like Dogme 95 where verisimilitude is paramount, is in negotiating between abstractions and representations to create something that feels true rather than merely is true. And sometimes that involves building a jigsaw puzzle of different registers and genre tropes to create a bigger and more vibrant picture that maybe has to gloss over some of the details.

The other problem I have with that analysis is that it is particularly teenage in it’s level of insight, especially as it usually comes alongside an assumption that most players are passive consumers in this situation allowing their minds to be dangerously warped by desensitising media. I say teenage because it's sort of this idea that you are the only one who can see the truth and who was affected a certain way by a certain piece of work. It ignores the internal life of others who may not have the inclination or the vocabulary to express themselves, assuming that if feelings or responses are not being talked about then they must not exist.

Video games are getting technically more competent and so are looking at broadening the emotional register of their characters in-game, but to assume that that is happening in parallel with a broadening of emotional register in players is demonstrably false because human emotional evolution is not tied to graphical processing capabilities; I was having emotional responses to games, and questioning the thoughtlessly violent nature of their protagonists, 20 years ago and I am no-one special. I don't mean to say that there aren't plenty of people wilfully missing the point or interacting with a given work purely on the surface level at any given time, myself included. But, my default position is to assume that the way any given person feels about a work of art is much more complicated than the way that they talk about it.

Psychology and in particular anthropology have historically suffered from a version of this fallacy which has left a legacy of popular belief in the emotional simplicity of both sub-cultures within and external cultures to the western education system from which they draw their explanatory framework. Which actually, neatly, brings us full circle to the initial problem with labelling people psychopaths: which is that it can easily fall prey to the same instinct to ignore internal lives and pathologise solely on the basis of external actions. Which is not to say that the concept of the psychopath is without use or validity, but that it's usage in media is certainly fraught with problems.

Liestedt and Linkowski (2013) Psychopathy and the Cinema: Fact or Fiction? Link