No matter how hard I've tried, I have not been able wrap my brain around video game programming. I've tried various tutorials, books, videos, and gaming engines and it just doesn't click. That's why gaming jams/challenges/dares appeal to me so much. Ludum Dare is one of the oldest, but the rules are largely the same for all of them. You have 48 hours to write/design/program a brand new game from the ground up on a given theme. That's insane.
Asylum Jam is trying to do something different with the form. The rules have already been released and they have a positive message. This jam is inspired by a fantastic article on Kotaku from Ian Mahar called "Nobody Wins When Horror Games Stigmatize Mental Illness."
Essentially, participating game creators have one rule to follow.
1.) You should not use asylums, psychiatric institutes, medical professionals or violent/antipathic/’insane’ patients as settings or triggers (some examples of what we’re steering away from.)
This jam is to show that you can still create a great horror experience without using inaccurate stereotypes of those who suffer from mental illness, or the institutions that support them in diagnosis and recovery.
That's it. Don't use mental illness or mental health care as an instigator for horror. The end. Good luck, have fun.
When we allow people suffering from mental illness to become the other in pop culture, we're perpetuating terrible stereotypes about mental illness. My OCD and anxiety do not make me a monster. Neither did my long bout with clinical depression. Yet, if you follow what horror video games in particular show again and again, anyone with a mental illness is a terrible person. At best, you can't be trusted because you don't REALLY see what the world is like. At worst, you're a cup of coffee away from becoming a serial killer.
Setting games in abandoned or active mental health facilities doesn't help, either. Only the worst of the worst modern institutions have ever looked like horror video games present them. These hospitals were shut down upon inspection and had their patients sent to far nicer facilities. Most of the time, these issues were caused with a lack of funding for mental health care stretching the staff far too thin. There have been no recorded incidents of an evil entity possessing such a facility or experimental research creating medical zombies out of mental health patients. But that's all we're shown in horror games that touch on mental health care.
The medical staff being vilified isn't any better. People already fear getting mental health care. Some of us are just afraid of what medication will do to our personality and thought process (and by some, I mean me). Some of us already had bad experiences with medication and choose to just go unmedicated as a result (and by some, I also mean me). Perpetuating the mad scientist, the angel of death, or the pain-obsessed doctor tropes add to the sense of discomfort with getting help for genuine medical conditions.
Dismissing this kind of reading as an overreaction is short-sighted. Yes, we're talking about video games that are filled with violence and disturbing content. These are games willing to do almost anything to scare the player. That does not excuse the influence popular media has on public discourse. There are people who only know how a jury works from 12 Angry Men and whose knowledge of the fashion industry begins at America's Next Top Model and ends at Project Runway.
Perpetuating mental health stereotypes through interactive gameplay has an impact on mental health care because it steers the discussion toward negative portrayals. The medium is swinging way too far in a negative and could benefit from some course correction. That's what it comes down to. There's a place for no holds barred horror, but it can't be at the expense of no one ever choosing to show restraint or different perspectives.
Asylum Jam is trying to turn the tide of mental health as the ultimate source of horror with a 48 hour game creation experience. I applaud them for taking this step and look forward to exploring the games that come out of it. Shoot, I might try to bang out a visual short story (using Ren'Py) or even just a choose your own adventure hypertext game (using Twine) during NYCC weekend to play along at home.
Asylum Jam is scheduled for 11-13 October. You can sign up at the Asylum Jam site.