Game developer of many hats. MFA Thesis student. Part-time vocal synthesis guru.

Thesis Blog

Warning: not all blogging is directly related to thesis, although most of it is.

Thesis Statement: From the Top

Time to take a look back at the more specific wording of my thesis and freshen up on the things I know, but might not remember perfectly since I haven’t dug into this in about a year. That’s okay, though; this stuff is like riding a bicycle for me. I haven’t forgotten it… I’ve just been unable to focus on it.

“Conscientiously designing video games to create empathy toward the mentally ill can help reduce mental illness stigma.”

Let’s break this sentence apart; it’s pretty short, but there is a bit of shorthand going on here, as well.

The problem, here, is the societal stigma against mental illness. While this stigma has improved over the past several years by leaps and bounds, it still exists and there is still a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding mental illness. Serious Mental Illness—or SMI—refers to a broad category of illnesses which can interfere with everyday life; I am discussing stigma in a general light, although part of that will include encouraging designers to look carefully at the specific illness they choose to tackle in their own work. While my example game can only tackle one, maybe two conditions, I hope to present a design toolkit which others may refer to in the creation of games that tackle other, perhaps even more deeply stigmatized illnesses than the ones I chose.

My hypothesis is that, among other anti-stigma programs, video games could be an effective method for reducing stigma in those who play them. This is because video games provide a particularly engaging experience by way of their interactivity; the nature of this experience gives rise to persuasive games, and the power for games to change how people think. By using conscientious design (focusing on the social values which are embedded in and promoted by the game), it should be possible to create a game which promotes awareness and reduces stigma, all without “slapping the player in the face” with the idea and accidentally creating alienation. Empathy is a tool, here, for putting the player in the shoes of a character, and through this experience, helping them to understand what it means to be mentally ill and stigmatized for it.

My thesis diagram from my master’s review.

My thesis diagram from my master’s review.

Thus, the goals for my thesis became as follows (taken directly from my presentation):

  1. To examine the current state of mental illness representation in video games.

  2. To examine and explain the value of including educational and empathetic representations of mental illness in media.

  3. To examine and explain the power of conscientiously designed games as a method of reducing mental illness stigma.

  4. To test and hopefully prove the effectiveness of interactive media (games) as “vicarious intergroup contact” for reducing mental illness stigma.

The first two of these are primarily background information to establish the “why” of my thesis and give it context in today’s social landscape. The third establishes context within the academic setting of the thesis, rather than the social context, and the fourth is the true meat of my thesis and how I intend to make this hypothesis a reality.

I’ll talk a little bit more later about some books and my theoretical framework, and the “values at play” which I chose for my project: that is to say, empathy at its core, as well as acceptance, cooperation, and equality, which are all elements (hopefully) opposed to stigmatization.

I also need to break down this “vicarious intergroup contact” hypothesis, and determine if trying to maintain it is entirely worth my while, or if I should just stick to my values at play approach and potentially throw out this turn of phrase. In short, the idea is that this is why empathy is effective for changing people’s points of view on a topic; by being exposed to the “out-group”, one can begin to see the similarities, rather than the differences, between the “out-group” and one’s own “in-group”. Still, the connection is a bit of a stretch… though I hate to leave the idea that “empathy reduces stigma” as only an assumption, much as it seems intuitively true to me.

Similarly, I’ll also use a later post to dig into the meanings of “stigma” and “empathy”, two of the more loaded words in my thesis at large.

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