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Suicide and Bullying: Can Video Games Be a Lifeline?

Dave Owen | 4 Mar 2014 19:00
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In this way the mobile platform, often considered the territory of mindless casual games, is well-suited to deliver issues-led titles. They can be produced by a small team on a modest budget, and being accessible anywhere, anytime offers a personal experience that builds a close relationship with the player. "The fact that mobile is a more casual audience actually helps," Miao said. "People play a game like this and play that quest line, and they can just tell a friend at school right after they've played it." It is arguably the most immediate gaming platform available.

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It's hugely important to get this content right. The games mentioned here have been successful because they were carefully crafted by people who truly care about the issues at hand and want to help others deal with them. "It shouldn't be tokenism," Hepler said. "I think it's great when it's in mainstream games, but it needs to be done well. It needs to be done respectfully and in a positive way."

It's this last point which has caused O'Neill to doubt how helpful Actual Sunlight can be for some players. "I'm not really of the belief that raw commiseration is much more than an anesthetic," he said. "Being a miserable fuck who hangs out with other miserable fucks doesn't really do anything but romanticize and validate miserable fuckery. If you want to be different, you've got to do something else."

This notion makes Kline believe that there isn't a need for more overtly issues-led or psycho-educational games, as these would be less appealing to players. "I'd rather play a game that is fun and interesting and has content I like, and have messages and the opportunities to grapple with the situations subtly built into the game," he said. An indirect approach could talk to players on a deeper level than just the cognitive, and therefore have a greater impact than something more obvious. In this way a game wouldn't necessarily need an explicit bullying quest, for example, to offer support and education to players.

There are potential financial benefits too. Pixelberry estimates that four million of their players have played High School Story's cyber-bullying quest. It contains micro-transactions that donate to Cybersmile, and Miao believes this demonstrates to players that the team truly cares. "As a result I think it helps us with retention and player loyalty, which helps to make our game more successful," he said. "If larger companies see our game become more successful, and they see that this is what makes our game more successful, hopefully they'll start doing similar things."

Kline agrees. "Ultimately it's better for game developers to have players who not only enjoy and are entertained by the game, but who have the opportunity to grow and become healthier people as a result." It would mean more consumers buying games for a longer period of time, and offer a significant boost to the industry, he said.

Not all games should be expected to concern themselves with serious social issues. But if games are able to be so significant in players' lives, the impact could be all the greater if bigger games engage with this and reach as many vulnerable people as possible. They should not be stamped out by negative sections of the community who seek to limit what a video game can be.

"No matter how many developers are put off by some type of backlash, I think the truth is ultimately irresistible," O'Neill said. "Somebody will always find their way to speaking it."

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