“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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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage