Lara Croft going into therapy reminds us that there are some things that can't be shrugged off. Image: Square Enix
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By taking on mental health issues, the likes of Tomb Raider show that video games are maturing

Tackling ideas of sanity, darkness and fear is a welcome effort to move away from the violent and emotionally withdrawn stereotype of a video game hero.

There is something a little strange about the idea of a video game character going into therapy, especially when that character is Lara Croft. On the one hand it stands to reason that a person might need some sort of psychiatric care after killing several hundred people, often in hand to hand combat, and confronting forces outside the realms of modern scientific understanding. But on the other hand this is a woman who can recover from a gunshot wound from close range within five seconds – if her mental health heals with the same swiftness surely she could overcome a bout of clinical depression in ten seconds just by looking at cat pictures.

If we are to be sold the idea that Lara is some regenerating killing machine, like a Hunger Games-themed Terminator, then the idea that her mental health should also be impervious to serious damage feels like a given. Of course it could be argued that Lara isn’t supposed to get shot multiple times and that in a perfect, and thus presumably canonical, run-through of the most recent Tomb Raider she can avoid all combat injuries, but even the wounds sustained within the scripted narrative sections of the game are very severe. The sense with Lara is that she is tough, like a cross between an old boot and the heat shield of a Soyuz.

So why would she not be able to just shrug it all off as the character would have done in her earlier incarnation? The simple answer, and the one that lies at the heart of a changing culture when it comes to mental health issues, is the recognition that there some things you cannot shrug off; that mental illness is not the result of a failure of will or character.

Over the last few years there has been a much greater effort made to understand and to remove the stigma from mental illness, particularly from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which has been causing so much harm particularly among soldiers and veterans. Getting veterans, or indeed anybody, to seek help for an injury or illness that isn’t immediately tangible can be very difficult. Being unable to deal with things on your own is often seen as weakness, as if being weak were worse than being unwell.

A game franchise showing a character trying to process trauma with outside help in this way is thus a good thing. It normalises the idea that a person should seek help to process and move past traumatic events. Indeed if other game franchises followed suit instead of glorifying the violent and emotionally withdrawn stereotype of a video game hero that could only be a good thing.

Some games however approach mental health in more direct, mechanical terms. Don’t Starve, for example, is a game about survival and adventure with the player as a castaway, alone in a strange world. While the titular process of avoiding starvation is paramount the game also demands that you make an effort to preserve the sanity of your character. In order to preserve sanity you have to maintain the best standard of living you can. Cooked meals, sleeping in a tent, and unlocking new technologies help to keep you sane while eating raw meat, digging up graves and being lost in the dark will gradually reduce your sanity, leading to hallucinations.

Darkness and fear as the source of insanity is a recurrent theme in the Amnesia games, which involve skulking around in deep, dark, cellars solving puzzles and being chased by monsters. Hiding from monsters in complete darkness will keep you alive, but the greater the time you spend in darkness the more your sanity decreases.

In games like this sanity is a resource that your character possesses and can expend or recover while you play. This seems very strange, but to an extent there is method to this depiction of madness. Mental illness is as old as the human race, but it is only very recently that the physiological reasons for it have begun to be recognised, if not understood. If we strip mental illness of its mystique, it could be considered to be no different from any other injury and we might, in game terms at least, imagine curing it in the same ways. Backhanded through a wall by a troll? Drink a healing potion. Haunted by nightmares of the time a dragon burninated your village? Drink another healing potion. If only real life were so straightforward.

Lastly there are games where the character the player is playing has more nuanced problems than maintaining a numerical level of sanity to contend with. Sometimes these problems may be obvious, sometimes less so. For example in the text adventure Depression Quest, the story deals with trying to be a functional adult while in the grip of a bout of depression. The key device this game employs, which resonated with me greatly, is the capacity for the depressed person to identify the correct choice, but the inability to actually make that choice. It is worth noting though that the game can be unintentionally scary if you start to consider how it would play out if the main character was going it alone.

Not everybody wants this sort of focus, and not every game needs an eye on mental health issues. Games can be escapism and sometimes we don’t want to worry about real world issues. But willingness for games to approach them in a more intelligent way shows how the medium is maturing, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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How the death of a militant in Kashmir went viral

Burhan Wani was a 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander. In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival.

His photographs began to circulate on Facebook last year. In one, he leans against a cedar tree in a forest in southern Kashmir, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. In another, he stands before lush green mountains under a cloudless sky.

But the picture that created the myth of Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander, was a group shot with ten armed associates standing around him. They faced the camera calmly, a hint of a smile tugging at their lips. The photograph went viral, not only in Kashmir but also across India and Pakistan.

On 8 July, when Wani and two other rebels were shot dead in a joint operation by the police and paramilitary forces, thousands of people across southern Kashmir took to the streets to mourn and protest. The mosques reverberated with slogans of freedom – a throwback to the late 1980s, when armed struggle against Indian rule broke out in the region. The protesters lobbed stones. The police fired back.

The following morning, news of protesters’ deaths started to emerge. The injured, numbering in their hundreds, began to reach the hospitals in Srinagar. Many had been hit in the eyes with pellets from pump-action guns, non-lethal weapons used for crowd control in Kashmir since 2010.

The eye doctors at Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital said that more than a hundred people had been partially or completely blinded. Among them was a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Insha Malik, who lost the vision in both eyes. A picture of her pellet-riddled face has become the symbol of the ongoing mayhem.

The fury soon spread across Kashmir. Mosque loudspeakers boomed with slogans and songs calling for resistance against India. Apart from the government-owned broadband service, internet and mobile-phone networks were shut down. Yet this made little difference. Roughly sixty people – many of them teenagers – have lost their lives. According to figures presented to parliament by the Indian home minister on 11 August, 4,515 security personnel and 3,356 civilians have been injured in the protests.

What made Burhan Wani important enough to warrant such widespread mourning and anger? The answer is tacitly understood in Kashmir but little articulated. In his six years as a rebel, Wani revived anti-India militancy from near-extinction. His strategy was primarily tech-driven – according to police in Kashmir, he hadn’t fired a single shot.

The image of a handsome young man in battle fatigues against a pastoral backdrop, calling for a new attempt at jihad against India, held a powerful appeal for a young generation in Kashmir. These are the people who are enduring the fallout of more than two decades of separatist insurgency, and they are bitter about New Delhi’s oppressive hold over their homeland. With his fresh, viral image, Wani separated his movement from Kashmir’s history and bestowed a new moral glamour on their actions.

He was soon joined by scores of recruits. In 2015, for the first time in a decade, local militants outnumbered outsiders. This year, out of 145 active rebels, 91 are from Indian-administered Kashmir and most of the rest are from Pakistan or Pakistan-administered Kashmir (though this is still a far cry from the early 1990s, when thousands of militants, both local and from elsewhere, roamed the valley). The recruits – many of them home-grown, Wani-inspired youths – are replenishing the ranks as others are killed.

As the ongoing turmoil shows, Wani long ago transcended his modest militant credentials. He has become an emblem of Kashmir’s deepening alienation from India and a role model for young people for whom guns seem to be the only route to a better future.

In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival. Unlike during the mass uprisings of 2008 and 2010, Kashmir today is drifting back to active militancy, with the myths about Wani enlivening the separatist narrative.

“You will kill one Burhan; thousands of Burhans will be born”, one slogan goes. “Burhan, your blood will bring revolution”, promises another. The millennial generation has little memory of the horrors of the 1990s, of the innumerable killings and disappearances. An estimated 60,000 people have been killed in the armed rebellion against New Delhi, in part aided by Pakistan (which claims Kashmir as part of its territory, in a dispute that stretches back to the 1947 partition of India). Human rights groups put the number of enforced disappearances in the present conflict at 8,000.

Contributing to this mood are India’s rightward turn under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the perception that New Delhi wants to forcibly change the demographics in Kashmir. This fear has been reinforced by recent government measures to set up colonies to be settled by Indian soldiers and Kashmiri Pandits – the latter from a small Hindu community that was forced to flee the region during the separatist violence.

At Wani’s funeral on 9 July, all eyes were on a group of masked rebels in the front row. They fired their guns in salute to their fallen chief. When prayers ended, the mourners strained to catch a glimpse of Wani’s comrades. Those who were close enough kissed them on the forehead before they escaped.

More than a month later, the anger on the streets shows no sign of abating. Protests take place daily across Kashmir. Businesses are shut down for most of the day, opening only briefly late in the evening and early in the morning. Internet access is restricted, except through the state-owned broadband. With each week of disturbances, the numbers of deaths and injuries continue to mount.

Meanwhile, a new video has appeared on Facebook and YouTube. This time, it comes from Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, Wani’s successor. Again, it shows a commander and his associates in battle fatigues, in a forest in southern Kashmir. Bhat waves to the camera as the others remain engrossed by their phones. It, too, has gone viral. 

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge