“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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser