A huge part of our Disability in Horror Month aim, is to challenge horror fans to critically look at some of the depictions of disability the genre has offered. It’s a goal shared by the creators of Asylum Jam – a 48 hour long game jam where game developers are challenged to make a horror game and explore the genre without negative mental health or medical stereotypes.
The event was founded by Lucy Morris, after reading Ian Mahar’s Kotaku article Nobody Wins When Horror Games Stigmatize Mental Illness. The rules are pretty simple – create a horror games without relying on tropes such as asylums, straight-jackets, or ‘violent/insane mental patients’. But it’s surprising how many horror games actually stray from these themes and ideas. Wikipedia even has a page dedicated to ‘Video games set in psychiatric hospitals‘.
Of course, the way in which these institutions are presented often compounds the stigma surrounding mental health conditions.
Doctor Donald Servan, who works in the field of mental health and is also a gamer explains “Horror games can be the worst offenders, using the mentally unwell as a cheap trick to shock or frighten the player. Consider the murderous artist ‘Sander Cohen’ from Bioshock, who is described as ‘a real lunatic’, or the rather on-the-nose ‘Crazy Dave’ from Plants versus Zombies, who sports a bushy beard, an un-tucked white shirt and a dented saucepan on his head, and seems to utter only gibberish, his slogan being: “BECAUSE I’M CRRRRRAAAAAAAZY!”
Asylum Jam presents some excellent quality mainstream horror game recommendations, as well as encouraging indie development. Among The Sleep and One Late Night, focused on childhood fears and a terrifying office experience are cited as good examples of games which create terror without harmful stereotypes.
The team stated: “Horror is usually derived from the unknown and what we do not understand— and mental illness is one of these subjects where the general public lacks knowledge and insight. Many horror games use the negative portrayal of those who suffer from mental illness as extremely violent or sadistic, usually as the villain or antagonist, as an easy crutch to rest their story, characters and motivations on. Psychiatric hospitals, asylums and other similar medical institutions are too-common settings.”
The games created during the Asylum Jam event itself have a broad range of themes; including mutant farm animals, a man searching for the ghost of his wife, and Lovecraftian mythos. The overarching theme is to reduce the stigma around mental illness, to illustrate to gamers that there is nothing shameful or wrong with receiving counselling and support. There’s a huge selection of games by indie developers, proving that horror games can do with venturing outside the asylum setting.
You can play the games and find more info on the Asylum Jam website.
Find out more about Disability in Horror Month here.