Mental Illness in Gaming: Never for the Lolz

I'm in an inflatable boat. I've been practicing all week how to paddle properly. I get out a bit and then remember how much I don't want to be in the water because I'm terrified of what's in the water. There could be something in there that will touch me. Or worse, bite me. I could lose a toe. Or maybe more. I could drown. The boat starts to go in circles as I paddle too fast and not evenly on one side then the other. My dad starts yelling at me for being an idiot. My mom's telling my dad to leave me alone and trying to get me to look at her. I can't breathe. It's so hard to breathe. I could die on this stupid inflatable boat. I could drown.

I'm at school early because I hate being late. I have english first, so I'm walking on the side of the building when the school councillor smiles at me and asks me to come with her. As I walk towards the councillors offices, which are across the hall from the reception and principals' offices, I see one of my closest friends walk out of the councillor's office. She won't look at me. I get a sinking feeling and I walk into Mrs. Callaghan's office. She begins to talk to me about the suicide note I had written to my friend. She asks how I'm feeling, why I want to die, and all the usual questions. I answer honestly. There's not much left to lose at this point.

A month ago I got married. The summer before my wedding I was a rock star. I felt in charge, unstoppable, incredibly intelligent, and like I could do anything. I was organizing my wedding, running a lot of games, and I decided at random to be a massage therapist. I signed up for school and did all the necessary pre-requisites. I felt like a power house, some force of nature and my mind went so fast I had a hard time keeping up with it when I spoke. But now? I haven't showered in weeks. I keep letting the dog go to the bathroom in the apartment because I can't get out of bed. I just keep watching Hoarders and laying in bed, barely eating. I'm spiralling. It gets worse each day. I can't find the energy or the will to do anything about it. My husband and I argue. He says I need help. But help is so far away and costs money and I'm exhausted.

When I get home from work my black shoes stain my feet black. We're poor. Epically poor. My partner's seriously depressed and can't work. I'm working at a pet store all the hours I can so I can keep us afloat. My mom's helping us out. But we're in serious debt and things aren't getting any better. I see my feet, stained black, and a fear creeps inside of me. What if they're rotting? I begin to wash my feet as soon as I get home every night from work. I take a bath and stare at them, wondering if they're rotting. They smell. They always have but now it's worse. They must be rotting. I scrub the black off and examine the flesh. For months I do this. My feet are rotting. My feet are rotting. 

Mental health has a close personal place in my life. Now-a-days, it's mostly anxiety focused. My delusions are few and far between, and once in awhile I think I see something when I don't. I blame poor vision. It could be something else mental health related, but why poke when it's not breaking me? Self preservation. It's not healthy, but it's working for me right now. And often, that's the tenant of those I know who struggle with mental health conditions.

I have anxiety. Some PTSD, maybe even c-PTSD. I dunno. My hypomania and delusions suggest something else going on. I haven't gone to see someone about this because I'm afraid to. I'm afraid to be crazy. I don't want to be crazy. I was raised in a household where crazy was a bad bad thing and the people who were crazy were scary.

I don't hide that I'm not your average bear. But when one in three adults has mental health concerns, it's time to have a conversation about inclusivity, ableism, and the space that occupies in gaming. Is your gaming inclusive? Is it ableist? If you're not familiar with ableism, it's the privilege one has being abled, be it able minded or able bodied, and how language shames those who aren't abled. Crazy is a great example. How many times have you seen a killer called crazy without them actually being crazy?

How many "multiple personality disorders" have I seen people play in my seventeen years of gaming? How many people who play "crazy" because it's funny? I had one couple ask me to play one person with two personalities so they could play the same character. Because wouldn't that be hilarious? I had another person play a character whom changed personalities every time he got hit in the head because it was so funny. How many times do comic books and movies make the crazies out to be entertaining?

That brings me to gaming. Like all things in life. I've quietly explored mental illness through gaming via controlled safe groups and talking about how I want to explore it before hand. Hell, I'm writing a game with a friend about experiencing PTSD and how to make that game feel genuine. Games have the opportunity, always, to let us experience things we normally can't relate to, because of our own limitations or our own privileges, and thus make us relate to those who are less privileged.

Summerland is a game by Greg Saunders about drifters who exist in a post apocalypse. They are drifters specifically because they have had some physiological or psychological trauma that doesn't let them function within society anymore. You progress through the game re-experiencing your trauma to recover and eventually join a settlement as part of them. It's one of the few games I've seen address mental health in a real way.

On some level, Don't Rest Your Head also deals with content in an interesting way. Insomnia is horrible on the mind and body, and the game talks about snapping although not in as exclusive of terms as Summerland. Multiple other games also dabble into the world of mental health, including Chill 3rd Edition, Mage 20th Anniversary, and Grey Ranks which has an emotional health aspect. These games all feature discussions and inclusivity on the part of mental health and take the opportunity with their games to have a conversation about what that means.

But how many times in D&D, RIFTS, Paranoia, and other main stream games have we seen the crazy traits used as a disadvantage. I remember being Bipolar (not my choice) in a Serenity game and that was a disadvantage. There's also multiple cases of using mental illnesses as tags or negative traits in Tremulus and most Cthulhu games. How many of these main stream games discuss mental illness, often an invisible illness, and what implications that makes on ones life. Further more,  it's treating those who do struggle with mental illness as Other.

They're different. They're comical. They're insane. They're scary. They'll kill you. 

For those of us with mental health issues, how does it feel when we watch someone play a person who's 'crazy' and make it funny? It's a little heart breaking. I remember a friend of mine saying she didn't want anyone to play with mental health as a line in our game because of how offensive and upsetting she found it as a person who struggled with mental health. By then I had seen countless examples of people playing crazy characters purely for the laughter. It's an easy out in Cthulhu games. We go crazy, we laugh maniacally or we cry or break down and we roll a new character. We can forget that we went crazy. We can forget that person.

I can't forget my experiences with my mental health. I worry every day how "bad" I'm getting and I try to stay on top of it. Mental health is an on going experience and struggle. Some of us see it as part of who we are and some of us don't. That's okay. But either way, when it comes to being called crazy, or seeing people call negative situations, transients, or people they don't like "crazy", they're using something we're called as something negative. That's ableist language. It's someone who isn't mentally ill using words that are used as a negative thing against mentally ill people as ways to describe bad situations or people or folks they just don't like. 

Yet we still see RPGs packed full of that kind of language. I was talking with Matt Gwinn recently about his game, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, a game about serial killers and obsessed heroes. The game discusses trauma and PTSD on a unique level, while still using fairly ableist language to describe killers. "The madness of murderers" is a great way of saying "serial killers are crazy and have mental health issues" even though it's not necessarily true or guaranteed. But it does equate Crazy with Killer. 

Fortunately, Matt's a great person and had a fabulous conversation with me about this. This language has since been changed or removed. He absolutely admitted he hadn't thought of it, and he and I went through it to look at what was part of the FBI profiling and what was just language he had used. I haven't done a review for the game, but it's one of my favourites and you should definitely pick it up if you get a chance. That is how you do it, folks. You own it. You change it if you can. Cheers to Matt for being awesome.

Everyone Is John is another fine example of a mental illness, in this case Dissociative Identity Disorder, once called Multiple Personality Disorder, taken light heartedly and made a joke out of. You play the voices in John's head, driving him to do insane and whacky things, as you vie for control of him. The language in the game itself is utterly repulsive:

"Everyone is John is a humorous, competitive roleplaying game about playing the various personalities of John, an insane man from Minneapolis." "John is a totally insane man..." "John is not terribly competent..." "The GM then describes the circumstances into which he wakes up. With John, you never can tell. He could be in a gutter somewhere, or he could be in a palatial estate, or anywhere in between. The Voices really have no idea how they ended up here."

But it's funny, so lots of people who aren't struggling with mental illness enjoy the game. I played it once, not knowing what I was getting into, and felt terrible. It was a horrific experience. Afterwards, I pulled the game apart on social media and the friend who had wanted to play apologized, having not realized what an uncomfortable game it was. Many people who aren't touched my mental health fail to see their own privilege with that, and then don't notice when they're saying offensive things. This results in things like Are You Mental? and Everyone is John.

A game called Are You Mental? just launched on Kickstarter. We all looked concerned at it, and a friend reached out to the creator. He then wrote a sorry-not-sorry bit on the game and since then, I've been struggling with what to do. The game is... almost Suicide Squad without having a conversation on what that means. Basically you play escaped people from an asylum who are running around pretending to be superheroes. The game tosses around words like madness, crazy, madhouse, and mental casually. The writer himself admits he does not struggle with mental illness.

At what point can we, as a community, say "Hey. Let's not make games about being differently abled unless the game is inclusive and careful?" I mean, there's a great game called 14 Days by Hannah Schaffer about dealing with migraines and chronic pain. It gives people a chance to try to understand the struggle of daily life with pain. Where's the game about mental health that demonstrates that similar struggle? Why do people use the phrase "out of spoons" but don't know where it came from? 

My name is Kate. I struggle with mental illness. I have all of my life. If you think that makes me crazy, fine. I'll own it. But if you think that means you should laugh at me, or play characters who struggle with mental illness because it's funny, that just makes you an asshole. And quite frankly, people who are assholes shouldn't be making RPGs because that's just how the industry gets filled more and more with shit. We're supposed to be working towards being more inclusive. Not less. 

Stop making games about crazy characters unless you yourself can have a conversation about the privilege of living without mental illness. 

Stop making games where being mentally ill is a joke.

Stop calling bad people crazy.

Stop playing games that promote the humour and levity in mental illness.

Start having conversations and calling people out on this bullshit. Start making inclusive games. Start playing inclusive characters. 

And hey, while we're at it, stop romanticizing mental illness, too. You hear me, Batman?