Gamescapes: Encouraging empathy and creating compassion through video games

In part five of the series, Chris James Carter from Nottingham narrates his life altering experience of using video games to cope with and improve his mental health.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Aug 04, 2020

Art has always been a great healer. From the vibrations of music in the sonic treatment chambers of Egyptian pyramids to cathartic Greek theatre and beyond, art has manifested itself as the friendly, accessible, multi-faceted doctor of cultures and communities across the globe. Art possesses the exceptional quality of being remedial not only for the artist but the viewer as well. It has held space for artists to pour their anxieties and miseries into, and a platform for viewers to reflect, respond and recuperate comforted by a sense of solidarity. We know this held true in the past; just look at Edvard Munch’s sketches or Frida Kahlo’s paintings. But what of the future? As new media continues to shape the path of contemporary art, video games are increasingly becoming a remarkable material with which artists can create worlds of their own and invite viewers to step inside their work in a way the paintings have never been able to.

To understand at a more intimate level, how video games can influence emotional and mental disposition, we spoke to Chris James Carter, a PhD graduate in psychology and an Assistant Professor at the Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Nottingham. The conversation had very little to do with the technical aspects of psychology and everything to do with Carter’s personal experience with video games as a method of healing. Over a couple of video calls from Bengaluru to Nottingham, he shared with us the story of how his road to closure and solace appeared within a game called Flower, created by thatgamecompany.

In an exclusive interview with STIR, Carter narrated his story: “This would have been around 2010-11 and I had just started my PhD at the University of Nottingham. It was a point of major transition for me. I was born and brought up in Nottingham and then I moved away and I had come back to do this PhD. So, there was this huge change, lots of things going on. Another piece of context is that I was also processing a lot of grief at that time. My best friend had passed away quite suddenly, not that long before. Earlier my relationship with games had been quite a lot of escapism and I had never played anything like Flower before. I think most probably the game had been on sale or something… That’s probably why I bit the bullet. So, I came to this game with no real expectations other than thinking that this looks interesting and unique. It was very different from what I usually play… What I wasn’t expecting from this game is the kind of emotional weight and impact it had. When I started playing I realised the combination of the lack of narrative with the amazing visuals and sound and the zen, the relaxed feeling it was giving had quite a positive effect on my own mood. I think that really helped me to process a lot of things that were going on, on a subconscious level”.

A still from Celeste, a game in which the protagonist fights her inner demons to move forward| Gamescapes | STIRworld
A still from Celeste, a game in which the protagonist fights her inner demons to move forward Image Credit: Courtesy of Matt Makes Games

Carter’s story is not unlike many others today. The engaging nature of the video game space allows for the experience to become an extension of one’s thought process, an emotional and immersive space not outside of oneself. As someone who has always been an avid seeker of art myself, I often find people shy away from the experience saying they cannot understand it. While a massive painting in a huge museum may seem ominous and overwhelming to some, a video game is a far more friendly and non-threatening art experience people can access from the safety of their homes.

Carter continued, “I think one of the things I was facing in terms of my mental health at the time was that I hadn’t given myself the space to process a lot of things, I had just put it all in a compartment and sort of moved on. The game, when I was playing, brought a lot of those things to the surface whether I wanted it or not. There are a few moments in the game that I remember being quite powerful, but there was one level where it’s rainy and stormy. I remember exactly where I was when I was playing this particular level because it kind of mirrored the conditions at that time. It was winter and I was in my loft apartment in this old industrial building in Nottingham, and the rain is dripping down the window and it’s dark and British winters you know, are generally quite a miserable affair. I was playing this game at the moment and it was really synchronising with what was going on in my actual environment. I just remember the impact of playing through that level and everything kind of transitioning to light and sun, what feels like warmth and storms clearing and it was quite a powerful metaphor for my state of mind at the time… It was a profound experience and as a result of that it has been a game that I come back to and use almost as a strategy to manage my stress”.

Chris James Carter has been an avid video game player from a young age and is a vocal advocate for its varied capacities | Gamescapes | STIRworld
Chris James Carter, an avid video game player from a young age, is a vocal advocate for its varied capacities Image Credit: Courtesy of Chris James Carter

Video games are an alternate, fascinating space to explore dialogue around complex feelings. They can provide a safe space for people struggling with mental health, creating a sense of community and support for the player. Sparx is a free online game, created by a team of researchers and clinicians at the University of Auckland, which uses cognitive behavioural therapy to help young people dealing with moderate conditions of depression, anxiety and stress. The game received positive responses from users and institutions alike. It has also won awards for its innovative concept, including the World Summit Award in the category of e-Health and Environment, supervised by the United Nations.

The potential of this media has many sides. It can help people tell their story and also create avenues of care for people who need it. Equally important, video games also have the incredible capacity of drawing us in, and helping us understand what another person might be going through. Video game avatars are an extension of our existence and through them we can explore and experience a range of emotions in a simulated universe. Although reading and educating ourselves is certainly an important step forward, video games can be immersive in a way that can truly help us empathise with friends and family battling depression, anxiety, PTSD, psychosis and other conditions. Through this type of learning, we can teach ourselves to be more compassionate and understanding.

When the conversation with Carter steered towards the advantages of video games over other traditional forms of treatment, he said, “I have had two failed attempts at counselling. I went once very shortly after it happened, probably in 2008, and it was just too soon for me I think and I wasn’t ready to start processing it. It felt a bit pointless to me because I wasn’t ready. I went again in 2011, and because my background is in psychology, I was thinking too hard about what the counsellor was doing and what techniques they were using and overthinking in a sort of meta way. I wasn’t focusing on actually doing the thing I was meant to be doing. I think the game, in contrast to those experiences, doesn’t really impose and gives you the space to navigate the narrative yourself. In those counselling sessions, I didn’t feel like I was being given the space really, and in part that was because I wasn’t giving myself the space. What the game did was kind of scaffolded everything by providing this environment and music and tone, but it didn’t hold your hand or guide you in a particular way and I think that was quite nice. What thatgamecompany does, what great films and great music do, is that they don’t patronise you or play to the lowest common denominator. They give you the space to process things yourself. What they get right is giving you that direction but not telling you how to go in it. That for me is a great game design, it gives you enough to fill in the blanks and create the experience for yourself”.

A picture of Carter’s father during their recent revisit to the Commodore Amiga 500+ | Gamescapes | STIRworld
A picture of Carter’s father during their recent revisit to the Commodore Amiga 500+ Image Credit: Shraddha Nair

For those who play, video games can often find a place in people’s hearts, attached to memory and sentiment, often shared with friends. Carter shared an anecdote of his own, discussing his Commodore Amiga 500+ computer his parents bought for him as a child, “I feel quite fortunate for having that experience because I spent so much time, not only with my friends, but also with my dad while playing these games and we built our own experiences from it, and we still got running jokes and we still reminisce every now and then. Last year during winter we decided that we were actually going to sit down and play a little bit of the game we used to play, called Sensible World of Soccer by Sensible Software… So, this was a football game where you could play whole seasons so it could go on for hours and hours. Instead of playing against each other we would play on the same team where we would play half each and we decided to do the same again. We didn’t play for too long but it was a really nice moment to be able to sit down all those years later and enjoy it and reminisce about that experience”.

Monument Valley is an award-winning game created by Ustwo Games and published in 2014 | Ustwo Games | Gamescapes | STIRworld
Monument Valley is an award-winning game created by Ustwo Games, published in 2014 Image Credit: Shraddha Nair

Some games where mental health conversation takes centre stage are Night in The Woods, Monument Valley, Celeste and Gris. However,video games that build empathy and sensitivity are not limited to mental health alone. The popular game Hyper Light Drifter was made by Alex Preston to share his story of dealing with a life-threatening heart condition. The retro-aesthetic, pixel-art style game uses the protagonist to portray the struggles of living with an extreme medical condition. As the chief character you have to seek out a cure while battling monsters and coughing blood when your life energy runs low. While video games are by no means a sure-fire substitute for medical assistance, they do hold the potential to raise awareness, create compassionate communities and provide harbours for people to explore their feelings through art. The versatile medium is still unfolding its many talents and in the near future may find its place in everyone’s toolkit.

Hyper Light Drifter by Heart Machine is a wonderful example of how video games can liberate both the creators and players by sharing difficult experiences through art | Heart Machine | Gamescapes | STIRworld
Hyper Light Drifter by Heart Machine is a wonderful example of how video games can liberate both the creators and players by sharing difficult experiences through art Image Credit: Shraddha Nair

Click here to know more about video games as an artform and read the other articles in the Gamescapes series presented by STIR.

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