Can Storytelling In Games Help Improve Mental Health?

To those who don’t play video games, the concept might seem strange. Video games appear to be just another way to waste time, however a huge amount of the gaming industry is driven by storytelling. Just like books and films, many games tell in depth, complex and emotional stories, with games such as The Last of Us, Horizon: Zero Dawn and Halo all being adapted into either films or tv shows in the next few years.

For many years, the only research done about video games focused on trying to find a link between videogames and violence, however this research doesn’t consider that most games aren’t violent war games. A huge part of the gaming industry is dedicated to telling interesting and complex stories, with characters and narratives that rival those seen in oscar winning movies. Something that is reflected by the introduction of game categories into awards such as the Baftas and the Oscars.

Screenshot from Horizons: Zero Dawn

Furthermore, research into the connection between video games and their effect on mental health recently have provided surprising outcomes. Despite many studies making an effort to connect video games with aggression and violence, some recent studies have now shown the positive effects of gaming on mental health. A recent Oxford study showed that playing Plants vs Zombies and Animal Crossing both helped reduce stress and anxiety when played often. But is the narrative aspect within video games essential for helping those that struggle with their mental health?

The study mentioned earlier did show that by playing Plants vs Zombies and/ or Animal Crossing frequently, they could both help reduce anxiety and stress, however both of these games have a very simple premise without a rich narrative; Plants vs Zombies being a tower defence game about defending your house in a zombie apocalypse; and Animal Crossing having very little narrative other than the premise of creating your own life on a deserted island paradise. But both of these games can be defined as ‘casual games’, games that you can pick up and put down freely that don’t have any complex or in depth story.

Promotional Image of Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Studies such as this one have suggested that games with complex storylines, especially those that focus around mental health, could actually be detrimental to those with mental health issues. This is because casual games provide a brief distraction from real world struggles, giving respite for the player to collect themselves before returning to real world tasks calmer thanks to playing a simple relaxing game. Games about mental health have been suggested to have the opposite effect, as they can remind people of the very real mental health struggles they may be trying to distract themselves from.

However despite this initial research, there is still a wealth of information that shows how the storytelling element in games is part of what makes them so effective in aiding those struggling with their mental health.

Looking at the research we just touched on for instance, not all games with rich storytelling are focussed around mental health. Games such as Stardew Valley and Undertale have incredibly rich and complex stories, which, although featuring characters that have struggles with their mental health, do not focus around the subject. Therefore games such as these could also provide a temporary distraction for the player, furthermore, games such as these could provide a better source of distraction as the richness and complexity of the story could be a more stimulating form of escapism.

Promotional Image of Undertale

The other studies that have looked at the positive effects of gaming can also be applied to narrative games in particular. One study found that video games are incredible at creating and increasing player motivation. All video games, no matter what the genre or type of game, have been created to motivate the player throughout. From the iconic gold coins in Mario games to the XP gained through doing the simplest tasks in Fortnite, games constantly positively reinforce players, which makes players feel as if they have achieved something, no matter how big or small.

Therefore the research done so far has found that achieving tasks in game can help players who struggle with mental health by improving a players mood. Many of those who struggle with mental health issues can struggle with their self worth as many mental health illnesses make someone feel as if they aren’t able to achieve simple tasks, or that they never get anything right, therefore by playing a game that is programmed with continuous positive reinforcement and encouragement, this can help break thought process that make someone feel worthless. Furthermore, this sense of achievement can also boost someone’s mood, something that is extremely important when it comes to those suffering with mental illness.

This feeling of accomplishment is even more applicable to games with complex narratives. As with any other game, games that have complex narratives will have been created to encourage the player throughout the game, and when rich storytelling is woven into the game, those small tasks amount to something far more significant throughout the game as they all add to the story. This then increases the sense of accomplishment, as the player will often be rewarded with story progression.

In many story rich games, the player is also taking on the role as someone who is significant within the game, whether it be the hero of Hyrule in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the son of a Greek god in Hades, or even looking after souls on their way to the afterlife in Spiritfarer, your role in games is always something significant within that world. This role playing aspect means when you achieve tasks throughout the game, no matter how small, you’re told you matter and your actions have a positive impact. Therefore when someone is struggling to find the motivation to do anything as their mind is telling them that nothing matters, playing a game that not only tells you otherwise, but gives you a sense of self worth can be the difference between someone going into a downward spiral or breaking out of unhealthy behaviour.

Promotional Image of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Another significant reason video games have been making strides in terms of mental health is the representation of various mental illnesses. Although many games fall into the same harmful stereotypes as other media, some games have proven to make a significant effort in their representation of mental illnesses. Hellblade: Senuas Sacrifice created a huge buzz as the game focuses around a woman who suffers with psychosis. The creators of the game worked with neuroscientists, mental health professionals and people who struggle with psychosis and hallucinations to depict the experience of living with psychosis as accurately and respectfully as possible. The game not only won a number of awards, but was praised highly for its representation of mental illness.

Promotional Image of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Representation such as Hellblade can have a number of positive impacts; firstly it makes those who suffer with mental illness feel less isolated in their experience. Senua’s Sacrifice is an excellent example of this as many people wrote to the creators of the game voicing how seeing psychosis being represented so well in a game made them feel seen and validated, many fans even went as far as creating a video expressing how much it meant to them seeing such respectful and accurate representation.

The other way in which representation can help is that it can educate those with no experience of mental health issues and break stigmas associated with illness such as these. Although no one game can represent an entire spectrum of a mental illness, by introducing audiences to more accurate representation of mental health illnesses, it can encourage further research and learning about these issues, which in turn makes it easier to understand those who are suffering with mental health. Just like any other illness, the more people who know about how to help these illnesses, the more prepared people are to help their friends and family who may be going through mental health issues, and the more equipped people are to help themselves should they need to.

Overall there still hasn’t been enough research into how narrative rich games can help those struggling with mental health issues. However, if you talk to anyone who plays narrative rich games, they will confirm that playing these games have, at one point or another, helped them through a hard time; the research done so far shows why this could be the case, and as research in to the benefits of gaming develops we are sure to see more benefits that story rich games can have on players mental health.

Written by: Ananthi Parekh, Production Assistant, Sliced Bread Animation
Published: 11 October 2022

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