Can a video game save a life? In light of how many digital lives players snuff out on a daily basis it may seem counterintuitive, but it’s an aspect of gaming that is quickly gaining credibility. The rise of indie developers has seen the emergence of games that deal prominently with serious social topics such as bullying and sexism, as well as physical and mental health. Stories of people who owe their lives to these games have not been far behind. High School Story is a mobile high school-themed game by Pixelberry Studios, a team of former EA developers. It combines simulation with story-driven quests, and has seen over six million downloads to date.
The team decided to use the innate drama of high school to talk about issues affecting young people. In recent months they have added a cyber-bullying-themed quest that aims to help those who are victim to it in real life. “I was reading an article about a girl in Florida who committed suicide because she was cyber-bullied,” says Oliver Miao, CEO of Pixelberry. The story resonated with him as he had been bullied at school, and it made the team realize that High School Story was the perfect vehicle for addressing the issue. “It’s a digital game played on a phone, we had a lot of reach with teenagers, and we thought that this would be a way in which we could make a difference,” says Miao.
They were quickly proved right. While the team was writing the quest, they received a message from a High School Story player via the in-game support system that is chiefly intended for reporting technical issues. “They told us they were planning to kill themselves,” says Miao. “We were really shocked. It was also something we realized we had no expertise in.”
As a relatively modern issue, there is a great deal of misunderstanding about cyber-bullying. Due to its online nature — it takes place on social media, YouTube, games, etc. — many believe it’s a problem victims should simply ignore.
Dr. Mark Kline is a clinical psychologist who consults to U.S. schools, and often advises on bullying. He sees cyber-bullying as equally hurtful as physical abuse. “Younger people very easily get inducted into relationships with people they don’t know, whose opinions about them they come to value very highly,” he said. “In this way they’re very vulnerable to being manipulated and abused.” He gives the example of a teenage girl whose self-conscious about her body having a revealing photo posted online for others to comment upon. “That can be a horrifying and upsetting experience. That can really push kids into a deep depression.”
The team at Pixelberry knew they had to help this player who had reached out to them. They sought advice from a suicide prevention hotline. “We were pushing them to get professional help, but we also wanted them to know that we cared about them,” Miao said. After a week of messaging back and forth the player decided to seek professional help. “She said it was because of our game that she was still there.”
The experience galvanized the writing of the cyber-bullying quest, and led Pixelberry to team up with Cybersmile, a cyber-bullying support charity. “It’s a scary thing to acknowledge, and I think [the player] felt more comfortable reaching out to us,” Miao said. It offered a direct example of how powerful their game could be.
It might seem strange to seek help from unknown game developers rather than from someone in real life, but it’s indicative of the same sense of attachment that causes some players to issue death threats when their favourite game is tweaked even a little, or to queue for hours at special events to meet voice actors. “My guess is that she felt like she had a relationship with the game developer,” Kline said. “They have felt empathized with by the game developer so they can trust them to be understanding of this and to handle it well.”
Many young people find it too difficult to talk to their parents or teachers for fear of being misunderstood, or they simply don’t have anyone else to tell. This could be why stories of young people finding help in video games are becoming common.
Jennifer Hepler was senior writer at BioWare for Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2; games that feature prominent homosexual relationships. “The most amazing experience of my career as a game writer was getting a fan latter after Dragon Age 2,” she says. It came from a young fan who was struggling with the realization that he was gay. “He had never seen a gay relationship portrayed as anything other than meaningless casual sex. He’d never seen it portrayed as romantic,” Hepler said. “He was really suicidal when he picked up Dragon Age 2.”
The romance with male companion character Anders showed this player that a relationship between two men could be loving and genuine. “By the end of it he had decided that he wasn’t going to kill himself,” Hepler said. “He was going to devote his life to finding that kind of passion and romance in real life.”
Although he has not had feedback as specific as this, indie developer Will O’Neill has frequently heard from players of his game Actual Sunlight, a short and candid story about love and depression. “Actual Sunlight has taught me that hope can spring from strange places,” he said. “As blunt an instrument as it is, many players have nonetheless told me that they found a great deal of grace and inspiration in the experience. I don’t know if that spurred them to confront themselves in a way that was more than momentary or spiritual, but I suppose even that could be the first step in making some type of change.”
These are, of course, anecdotal examples, but they serve to demonstrate the impact a video game can have on someone’s life. “I’ve been impressed with how psycho-active video games are,” Kline said. “They really get into people’s heads in a really profound way.” He points out the media’s propensity to focus on the negative side of this: distraction, addiction, violence. “To invert that, if we can imagine that video games are that psychoactive and can hijack your mind in that way, we also have to accept that they can have a profound impact in other ways,” he said. Those impacts can be positive.
Yet attempts to openly engage with serious social topics are rarely seen in the triple-A space. “We wanted to explore a lot of weighty real world topics [in Dragon Age] and look at them through a fantasy lens, because you can poke a lot harder at those topics if you’re talking about elves as opposed to real world races,” Hepler said. “If you’re doing a game where you’re not trying to look at those sorts of things, it might just seem like more trouble than it’s worth to bring them up and deal with the backlash that you can get for trying to put any sort of diversity or social justice issues into games.”
She speaks from experience; the Dragon Age games were the subject of a severe backlash for their inclusion of homosexual relationships. This was a contributing factor to an online hate campaign against Hepler. Actual Sunlight is currently on Steam Greenlight, and many comments there voice the opinion that a game isn’t the place to address an issue like depression.
“People like to keep games in a box,” Miao said. “They don’t realize that games as a medium have a really wide range and that they can address a lot of issues.” Both Miao and Hepler agree that the immersive nature of games can also make tackling such issues a sensitive endeavor. Players invest a great deal of time in games, often making them a more personal experience. “Playing a character that you relate to is very different when you have, say, a male romance character coming on to you, compared to watching two guys in a TV show,” Hepler said.
The threat of a backlash could be enough to deter larger developers and publishers from including social issues in their games. Miao worked at EA before he took the reins of Pixelberry. “I think with triple-A games the budgets are too large to take a risk,” he says. EA has run campaigns around inclusion for the LGBT community, showing that people there do care about these issues. “But to get from people caring about these issues to actually getting them in the game will take a lot more work,” Miao said.
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.
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.”