“Don’t Starve” is one recent game that encourages players to appreciate the real consequence of death. Image: Klei Entertainment
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What can “permadeath” video games teach us about suicide?

Permanence and finality in video games can help us be better at understanding, and talking about, mental health issues.

“Happy, depressed, spiteful, manic or suicidal? More Mudokons... with real emotions,” reads the back cover of the 1998 PlayStation video game Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus.

To the credit of developers Oddworld Inhabitants, its titular Oddworld series was revolutionary in its exploration of mature themes – slavery, captivity, capitalist greed, to name but a few examples – which in the Nineties was a distinguished side-step from the whimsical cartoon mascots and fluorescent fantasy worlds prevalent at the time. Oddworld was darker and thus more intriguing than most of the competition, yet how Exoddus scrutinises suicide in this instance appears to resign the deeply complex state of mind to a badge of honour, a commodity, a testament to the game’s advanced artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, this blasé characterisation of the act is a damaging indictment of a game capable of tackling sophisticated ideas.

But again, Oddworld was ahead of its time. The fact that it even considered suicide within its narrative was against the grain. Nowadays, video games are more culturally aware and the burgeoning indie renaissance the medium has enjoyed over the last few years has facilitated a more refined discourse in and around interpersonal themes, not least suicide. Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest and Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight both examine mental health by placing the player in the shoes of characters suffering from depression and suicidal tendencies. It’s bleak, but naturally reflects the subject matter. Most importantly, though, it’s informative – not only for those naive or ignorant to these conditions, but for those who may be in a relatable position, although the latter should be exercised with caution. Video games can never replace professional consultation, but they can show players that they’re not alone, and this can mark the first step towards remedial treatment.   

The rise of permadeath in video games – whereby player characters die permanently in-game, or where a game must restart from the beginning should the player character die, in the absence of multiple lives or continues – has changed the way players approach games. In these instances, emotion is often the driving force when it comes to decision-making, and thus with permadeath mental state governs player action, as opposed to logical rationale.

It’s worth noting here that self-sacrifice – when players kill themselves to respawn or restart levels; or non-playable characters sacrifice themselves for the greater good/to save their companions – is different from suicide as portrayed in the above examples. Permadeath essentially forces players to consider consequence, permanence and finality within the bounds of digital landscapes.

But what about out with virtual settings – are these themes and ideas transferable to reality? An academic paper published in 2014 entitled “Being Bad in a Video Game Can Make Us More Morally Sensitive”, co-authored by Dr Matthew Grizzard, discusses how engaging in certain virtual behaviours has scope to elicit feelings of guilt and can thus encourage prosocial real life consequences. Grizzard et al hypothesise that committing immoral behaviour in video games can lead to increased moral sensitivity in players. This would suggest a heightened sense or understanding of consequence on the part of the player, therefore I ask Dr Grizzard if this line of thought could extend to a better comprehension of suicide – both in-game and in real life.

“I think [the] question really has two parts: (1) Do video games encourage a better understanding of the finality of suicide in real life? Versus, (2) Could video games encourage a better understanding of the finality of suicide in real life?” he says. “With regard to the first question, I don’t think games necessarily encourage ideas of permanence and finality. Video games are designed to be played multiple times with death being a temporary inconvenience rather than permanent. In fact, players will sometimes even kill themselves in games when they encounter obstacles or become stuck in a game to ‘respawn’ at an earlier time point in the game. So video games, particularly popular press video games, encourage a view that death as temporary. Death is portrayed as detrimental in games, but it is not a one-way door.

“With regard to the second question – I do think games could encourage a better understanding of the finality of suicide.”

For many players, video games represent a safe place and facilitate a certain level of escapism. Reality is suspended and thus the in-game cycle of dying and respawning and restarting is part of the deal. But even in games that utilize the permadeath feature, death is often more of a hindrance than it is absolutely final, as Grizzard suggests. The games that use permadeath as their primary mechanic, such as Klei Entertainment’s 2013 hit Don’t Starve, seem to be the ones which best represent finality, encouraging players to appreciate the real consequence of death.

“As designers we work really hard to give players agency,” says Klei Entertainment founder Jamie Cheng. “Permadeath is almost ‘free’ agency, in that suddenly every action matters a whole lot more. I think players appreciate that, and as a designer it gives us a chance to show them similar scenarios over time, and how their actions can drastically change outcomes.

“Obviously emotion plays a part, but in my experience the emotion happens after the finality, not before. That is: when the player dies or a catastrophic event happens, that’s when the weight of consequence hits – but beforehand, players are simply more attuned to their actions and less frivolous.”

Although Cheng admits suicide was never something that was considered during Don’t Starve’s design process, he does point to the fact that it’s more important to consider the active adventure, as opposed to its end. I suggest that in a game which places so much emphasis on preserving life, comparisons between virtual and actual reality are more or less likely to follow.

“I’m unclear that there’s much correlation between in-game and reality,” offers Cheng. “Instead of affecting how players perceive reality, our goal is the other way around – to have a video game that mimics reality in its finality and consequence. In addition, we want players to enjoy the journey. Since the player knows that eventually they’ll lose it all, it makes more sense that the process is the interesting part, and not what you get at the end of the journey.”

It could be argued that no matter which way around these ideas are depicted, in light of what Cheng says, the end result illustrates an intrinsic link between game worlds and the real world. This would seem to play perfectly into Grizzard’s view that video games could do more in encouraging a better understanding of the finality of suicide. He points to other transformative media that tackles similar themes such as film, noting Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life as a pertinent example of how powerful viewing the world through someone else’s eyes – in this example a fictitious character – can be for viewers. There’s no reason why video games can’t deliver something similar.

“Evolutionarily, play represents a safe place to practice or experience skills that we generally don’t or can’t have direct access to in the real-world for many reasons,” adds Grizzard. “Both predatory and prey animals play to learn how to survive in the wild. Human play serves similar roles, with the skills that we learn being not only related to physical attributes but also social attributes. For example, in medical schools in the US, doctors-in-training practice giving bad news to patients in ‘play’ scenarios with actors.

“These scenarios help doctors practise skills that they rarely have the opportunity to practice in the real-world in a safe environment where making mistakes has few consequences. Video games can be particularly adept at allowing the same type of play for several reasons. Primarily, the human brain doesn’t firmly distinguish between real versus mediated stimuli. Our brain reacts to mediated images in a similar fashion as it does to real images. This is why scary movies can make us jump or tearjerkers can make us cry. Video games have the potential to provide players with a rich virtual environment filled characters and stimuli that they respond to as if they were real.

“As such, games could provide a glimpse into the severe negative consequences of suicide on family members and friends. This glimpse is obviously impossible in the real world, but games have the ability to simulate it.”

Video games are in the auspicious position of not only being a persuasive, cogent and expressive medium, but, unique to any other form of media, are also interactive. Physically engaging players in two-way stories arguably puts the platform in the best position to challenge perceptions, and to explore personal, more sophisticated themes. In the grand scheme of things, video games as a medium are relatively new, thus there is no reason why this can’t or won’t continue to grow in the future.   

“Video games do have the potential,” adds Grizzard. “However, questions still remain as to whether a single play experience that associates strong consequences with suicide could overcome the more traditional ‘death is temporary’ play experiences that are generally seen in video games. These are fascinating questions, and I would be hesitant to conclude one way or the other. “As always, more research must be done.”

Research such as Grizzard’s, coupled with the rising number of video games tackling social issues, must continue. As a society, suicide has become stigmatised to the point where we seem almost scared to discuss the subject for fear of admitting failure or weakness. This is, of course, ridiculous and British culture is particularly guilty of endorsing the “stiff-upper lip” mentality that perpetuates warped machismo doctrines such as this. I’m from Glasgow and in 2012, the suicide rates in Scotland were 73 per cent greater than those of England and Wales. No one is suggesting video games can single-handed drive these statistics down, but if the medium can help encourage healthier, more enlightened conversation around the issue, then it's heading in the right direction.

If you are affected by any of the issues discussed here, you can call the Samaritans free in the UK on 08457 909090, or in the US contact the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255.

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt