This is an unedited, abridged excerpt from the first draft of the second chapter of the book I'm writing. This is an early version of some of the arguments but gives you an idea of both the style of writing I'm initially looking at and the themes I'm investigating.
is a curious confluence of ideas between gaming and madness streaming
down the years of theory and concept, although not one strong enough to
be necessarily formalised. It is not that madness describes a
game-world, or that to play games is to be mad, but it is certain that
both have been and can be described as worlds separate to that of
reality. The history of madness is a history of enforced confinement and
separation, and the developing idea of the madness itself being a
disconnection between the afflicted person’s perceptions of what is real
and what is truly there. The player of games meanwhile willingly
enters, just for a while, a space where the rules are defined, different
to and cushioned from the rules that govern the outer world.
In his history Madness and Civilisation
Foucault traces the idea of madness, from pre-classical times where he
posits a mental world of almost pre-fall wholeness: one in which
overwhelming passions and mystical insight instead of dysfunction and
folly marked out differences. In this world the main othered group, to
be kept separate and outside, was the leprous; but with time the mad and
the leprous became conceptually mixed. (This in itself is only a very
surface reading of the first chapter of Foucault’s book.) From that
point on the path madness follows is one of disease, disorder and
vagrancy, ladened with meanings that are not itself but always, from the
great conceptual shift of the classical period, to be confined.
At times it has been the fact of physical confinement, often predicated out of political or humanitarian ideals as in the hôpitals
of the new French republic or the Asylums of Victorian England, that
has suggested a deeper fundamental separation to theorists of the mind.
Elsewhere in history it has been the study of the mad, of what they say
and do and believe, and the fears thereof amongst the sane, that have
promoted the need to keep them apart. Just think even now how loaded
with political power the phrase ‘care in the community’ has become and
you won’t laugh so much at our ancestors who thought that a madness that
resided in imbalances of vapours could pervade through a malignant air
and infect those nearby.
message that the things that we do shape the way we think and talk about
concepts comes through as his history races ever closer to the present
and theory and action reinforce one another until madness is truly
defined as a separate way of thought, until madness is defined and
codified and treated not as an alternate way of being but as dysfunction
and nothing else.
Whether or not you agree with the
way in which we currently conceptualise mental illness is, at this
point, immaterial. While Foucault’s argument is powerful and his
analysis compelling it is by no means a given that the modern view of
madness is entirely socially constructed, and in fact a counter argument
is that the focus pulling effect has been towards a real truth, one
which was discovered incrementally and through a great many experiments:
crude at first and often disastrous for those whose lives were
experimented with, but essentially self-correcting and progressive.
societal changes, certain tropes and stigmas remain common, and surface
even in the most recent iterations of popular culture, which includes
game design. The strength of the representation is cemented further when
viewed within some certain works of art. Lady Macbeth’s psychosis and
paranoia is confined within one of the greatest works in English
language, if we are not going to be rid of this powerful psychodrama
from our culture for the sake of its inherent sexism then I don’t think
that its conflation of villainy and madness is going to convince us
either, and maybe it shouldn’t even do so as there is a certain validity
there. However, the plaudits rightly showered on the play, and its
creator’s central place in what for many is and should be the core of
our culture, provide its depictions with a legitimacy that goes beyond
their narrative use. Shakespeare is art, and art is truth. Not every
popular depiction is necessarily able to be so heralded unchallenged,
but the syllogism remains in the background, while the depictions in all
media foreground themselves and repeat, in entertainment’s lazy way,
across a hundred iterations of the same essential stories, until they
acquire a form of accepted truth that is as easy to leave unquestioned
as was art’s before it.
So where does gaming sit within
this history of popular culture? We tend to talk about it, and I will
be doing so too in this book, as a bit of a monolith, as gaming culture.
But gaming and games are spread out across activities and people and
concepts; an anti-entropic climb from children playing make-believe, to
family boardgames, to sports, to gambling to the people who call
themselves ‘gamers’ and play with esoteric, highly organized rulesets.
non-games are called games, because they have something fundamental in
common: there is the Tarot, with its cards and rules; there is politics
or street crime, with their levels and layers and fronting; and there is
Hip-Hop, with playful unrealities, avatars and contests of skill. But
what is it that binds these all together, that binds them to some of the
earliest conceptions of what makes a game a game, rather than just a
pastime? I would say that it is the sense of there being another world, a
game-world, in which all this takes place in.
when it is so close to reality as to be indistinguishable, for a person
to conceptualise that they are playing a game they have to believe that
the rules are in some way different to those of reality. The purest game
worlds are those which are truly separate, where although we can win or
lose we do not bring our win or our loss outside, only the memory of it
– the experience of which can teach us important lessons about victory
and defeat in the real world, as well as strategy and forward thinking
and so on. We can also take with us the emotions – the joy of victory
and the sadness of defeat, and the skills and sometimes the spoils of
There is often a snobbery, with (often older)
games like chess being considered ‘better’ and ‘purer’ than other
games. There have always been crazes and fashions in gaming, and games
that have been considered dangerous to mind or spirit, addictions that
have destroyed lives as surely as there have been escape routes that
have saved them. Even as games were being theorised as teaching tools
they were also being theorised as dangerous illusions. Unrealities that
simulate reality, that can easily confuse and ensnare the weak minded.
eventually the two worlds under our microscope interact. Like any art
form with any representational expression games of all forms have
attempted to depict the mad and the unwell and to place them within the
framework of a larger understanding; be that of war, or crime or the
entirety of life as we experience it depending on the game's theme and
scope. This is exactly as you should expect, and as a primarily popular
form those depictions have tended to follow the patterns laid down in
the rest of popular culture, which makes popular culture a good place to
start looking for an overview of mental illness tropes.
memes and other ways of streamlining the processing and re-presentation
of meaning develop over time; spinning out of complex ideas and
eventually coming to stand for those ideas. This is not an essentially
deleterious process, as it can allow for something to stand for more
than it is, so that a single idea can carry layers of meaning accreted
through history or encoded at the time of its first usage. However, it
can also allow for lazy, construction-kit storytelling, where each piece
is fitted together because it works to do so, but without examining the
inner workings of the pieces. It can also allow for lazy, prejudiced
thinking, because what is a prejudice other than a trope; a black-box
that short-circuits a mental flowchart snapping through to make decision
making less burdensome.
Madness is sometimes used as a
shorthand – both in popular language and in terms of the moral
structure of games – for deviancy or sub-humanness or necessary death.
Sometimes games give you moral choices about how you deal with the mad
(Bioware etc.), sometimes a moral choice is displayed, but given to the
character and played out in cut-scene (so you might finish the boss
fight but rather than a death animation the character is shown wrestling
with, or giving, mercy – or allowing the mad boss to kill themselves,
or at least be the agent of their own death so avoiding ultimate
responsibility for their death in true Disney villain style), and
sometimes the need for death is given a moral imperative – either by the
protagonist ‘I’m putting you down’, the antagonist ‘please stop the
voices!’ or the situation - where the mad character will not stop
attacking until they die, even if they don’t intend harm.
do popular ideas of madness integrate themselves into the structures of
games, and is this different fundamentally, or merely texturally, to
the rest of popular culture and representational mediums? How do games
deal with the issues unique to gaming? Should gamers, both players and
designers, have any specific cause to be more heavily invested or
understanding of these issues? These are questions that I hope to answer
over the course of this book.