Johnny is the Senior Video Producer for EuroGamer.net. He has done some incredibly insightful articles about the connection between mental health and video games and how it's portrayed in an industry that is now worth billions every year.
Even if you're not 'into' video games, you'll find this a fascinating interview.
First up, as someone who has anxiety and depression, how you feeling today?
I’m ok. The tail end of last week was really tough - it feels like a lot of people I know are struggling to adjust to the early sunsets at the moment and I’m definitely in that camp. I had a lovely weekend doing some gentle socialising though, so I’m feeling a bit better.
As a video games journalist, what are you currently playing and enjoying?
Vermintide has completely taken over my gaming life at the moment, it’s fantastic. I get such a kick out of co-op games these days and this one’s really rewarding with the right players. I’m also playing quite a bit of Deadlands at the minute, which is a pen and paper role-playing game.
As consoles (and smart phones for that matter) become more technologically advanced, do you think developers are harnessing that power enough to build different kinds of games, or are they settling for ‘bigger, better, faster, more’?
I think we’re seeing some fantastic innovation in game development at the minute, with indie developers leading the charge. I don’t think that’s necessarily to do with consoles and phones becoming more powerful; rather, I think game development itself has become more accessible.
Not too long ago if you couldn’t code, tough luck. Now, resources like Unity (and the sheer number of online tutorials) have helped people get into development and they’re bringing some lovely ideas with them.
Looking at mental illness, it’s rarely portrayed well in video games. With a condition that affects so many people, which are the games that do it well, and which one does it particularly badly?
I think Life is Strange portrays mental illness extremely well. It tackles issues like suicide with an admirable mix of boldness of sensitivity, but it’s also really good at portraying the stuff that people carry around with them every day, like anxiety. It’s not perfect, but it really resonated with me.
As for the bad, I’m wary of singling out one game in particular. I don’t think developers set out to vilify people with mental illnesses, but games often use asylums as the setting or boil mental illness down to the stereotypical 'Dangerous Crazy Person'.
It’s sad because it’s more than just lazy storytelling - it promotes a sense that mental health disorders are something to be feared and that these people are, as a rule, dangerous.
With the likes of PlayStation VR and Oculus Rift coming in 2016 (hopefully), do you think there is a way mental illness can be better explored in the world of virtual reality? Does it open up more possibilities or will it go the way of ‘motion control’ and ‘3D’?
Actually, VR is already being used in certain cases to help treat people. For instance, there’s an experience called Virtual Iraq which is designed to help combat veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It starts out putting the patient in a safe simulation of Iraq; then, as they progress further toward dealing with the event that caused their PTSD (over a number of sessions), the intensity is ramped up. It’s a way of getting the patient to gradually face their traumatic event and process it. VR could open up some fantastic avenues for mental health, done right.
Have you tried them both (or any of them) and what can you tell us about them and how we’ll play games in the future?
I tried Oculus Rift with Elite: Dangerous (a space exploration game) recently and it was fantastic. Being able to look around in the cockpit while in a dogfight changed the way I thought about flying and, given I’ve put maybe 100 hours into that game, that’s fairly impressive!
I’ve not tried any of the others but I’d love to try the HTC Vive, I’ve heard great things. I was heavily sceptical about whether VR would catch on, but I really think it might happen.
It is often reported that when a person has committed a serious crime and they have a mental health diagnosis and they have been playing video games. The video game is to blame and not the person . What are your views on this?
It’s nonsense. Studies have shown that there is no link between videogames and violent behaviour - it’s just tabloid sensationalism. I think a lot of it comes from a lack of understanding.
People have no problem with people watching violent movies, but there’s something about the sense of urgency that comes with having a controller in hand that scares them.
Question from Callum Forsyth (@CallumsFace)....
I've been loving your Low Batteries series and talking around the idea of using video games as coping mechanisms. My question is about when we rely on these things too much. In general, my family hate/don't understand games, so are quick to blame problems on them. It makes it hard to use games as a coping method when they are negative about the experience. What advice do you have for maintaining the balance between coping and reliance when others are skewing things towards reliance and making you feel guilty for it?
I think the best way to deal with a situation like this is to break it down into two separate parts: your balance between coping / reliance, and your family’s perception of that balance.
The first is something for you to monitor and to manage for yourself. Be honest with yourself and try to train yourself to spot the difference between using games to distract yourself for a while and using them to avoid a bigger problem.
Every family is different and I’m not sure how effective this advice will be, but try explaining to them that you consider games to be a positive influence on your life. Tell them that you’re aware there’s a line between using games as a helpful tool and using them to ignore a more serious issue and that you’re working to stay on the right side of that line. Finally, I’d tell them calmly but firmly that you use video games as part of a strategy to deal with your issues and that it’s not productive for them to make you feel guilty about that. They don’t have to understand video games to understand that they work for you and that you’re being proactive about your mental health. I hope that helps. And thanks for the kind words, it means a lot that Low Batteries resonates with people.
As Callum mentions your ‘Low Batteries’ series looking at mental health and video games has been incredibly popular (over 15,000 views over 3 videos). Do you think mental illness is an area that is too often overlooked in gaming or should the two be kept separate.
I don’t think they should be kept separate and, while not broadly discussed in tandem, I don’t think they’re really being overlooked. It’s actually been very encouraging, over the past few years, to see how often mental illness is discussed in relation to gaming - both from journalists talking about their own experiences and games themselves portraying mental disorders.
With Low Batteries, the idea was (and is) to celebrate those aspects of gaming that get it right, but I also wanted to get gamers thinking about their own mental health. I’ve met a lot of people in my time who seemed to be suffering from depression or anxiety, but were quick to write it off as an inherent ‘weirdness’ in their character. I think if I’ve helped one person to realise they might actually have something they can tackle and treat, I’ll have done my job. That’s my hope, anyway.
Is the tortured protagonist with an itchy trigger finger a cliche in video games?
I think so, yes, but the definition of 'tortured' is a slippery one. I think there are a lot of angsty protagonists with itchy trigger fingers, but I don’t think developers are necessarily setting out to portray those people as having mental disorders.
You’ve been quite open about your own mental health in many of the videos you’ve made. How have they helped you in times when you’ve been unwell? What’s your current ‘sadgame’?
Games help me when I’m down by giving me a bit of distance - breathing room, if you like - between my current emotional state and the thing that’s troubling me. Occupying my brain with something that requires coordination and timing helps distract me from the immediacy of my troubles. I imagine I get some form of chemical release from achieving things in-game, too. When I put the controller down or switch off my PC, I often feel like I’m a bit better prepared to face my illness.
At the minute, my ‘sadgame’ is Elite: Dangerous. I fly about mapping systems in the galaxy and selling the cartographic data, which is quite a peaceful way of playing. It’s just taxing enough that I need to sit up and pay attention, but it also has quiet moments in which I can reflect on the stuff that’s bothering me. Flying around the galaxy also helps put things into perspective in an existentialist sense, I guess!
How can people understand and recognise the difference between using games as a coping mechanism or distraction technique and something more deep-rooted and all-encapsulating? Where is ‘the line’ for you?
I think it comes down to the context of that play time - at what point do you start playing a game and for how long? If I’m down and I dip into Elite, for instance, it’s generally as part of a bigger plan to get myself back on track.
I realise I’m not coping especially well, tell myself I’m going into space for an hour or two, after which I’ll re-assess and see if I can get my day back.
I think that behaviour strays into something more deep-rooted when the game in question becomes your entire day. As an example, I hit a rough patch a few months ago and I threw myself wholesale into the Witcher 3. For entire weekends, it was nothing but Geralt and his swords. I spent a lot of time playing that game but, thinking back on it, I don’t really remember very much of the experience. I was definitely trying to lose myself and I didn’t realise it at the time. Vigilance is key, I guess.
Which game do you turn to most often for support or just to relax, even when you’re feeling ok?
I think I mostly turn to board games these days to relax, they’re deeply social activities and I get a buzz from sharing those experiences with friends. Sunless Sea is a fantastic video game, though. It’s soothing and exacting and funny and horrific all at once. It’s lovely.
Question from David Owen (@davidowenauthor)
I'd be genuinely interested to know if there's any relation, at any given time, between his mental health and your beard. When I'm feeling particularly depressed I tend to grow a big beard (I'm the first image result for 'depression beard', quite the accolade I'm sure you'll agree), and as you have really impressive facial hair, I'd be curious to know if you does anything similar. I'm well aware that this is an entirely pointless question.
Best question ever! There isn’t a link between my mental health and my beard - at least, not that I’m aware of! I’m just not very good at trimming my beard so I let it grow out and then trim it back in one big go.
My depression manifests outwardly in my clothing choices instead, I think. I keep my hood up a lot when I’m down, or I go for big jumpers and a lot of dark colours. I’ll keep my coat on in the pub while I get acclimatised, that sort of thing.
Depression Quest is a game all about living with depression. Whilst not directly connected with mental health, the harassment of the lady who developed the game Zoe Quinn (she wasn’t the only one affected), led to the now infamous #GamerGate controversy. As an video game ‘insider’, I’d be interested to know your views on it.
GamerGate was awful, absolutely abhorrent. It was horrible to see a sustained campaign of harassment happening to so many women (who are so underrepresented in the games industry anyway) and, for a time, it was a little scary.
The perpetrators of GamerGate were so forceful, so unpredictable, but the thing they were championing was this bizarre conspiracy theory. It was a campaign of harassment. Plain and simple.
As much as we seem to move on technologically, is it a vocal minority or the ‘norm’ in such a male-dominated world that keeps these mysogenistic opinions alive?
It’s both, to be honest, but they operate at different intensities. There was a misogynistic, hateful core to GamerGate that packed the whole thing up as an ethical crusade. That’s how it was sold to a lot of the people who joined in. I think those people are the truly vicious ones and they’re in the minority.
However, there is a definite and profound problem with sexism in the games industry. There aren’t enough female developers or journalists. The ones we do have face serious challenges in the workplace and from gamers themselves. It extends to fans, too - they’re constantly browbeaten with this nonsensical perception that being a woman precludes you from enjoying video games. It’s embarrassing, to be honest, and it’s holding the whole industry back.
When more and more people now consider themselves to be gamers, what do you think GamerGate says about video game culture in the 21st century?
I don’t think GamerGate says anything good about anything.
Well said. Let's move swiftly on. When you’re feeling low, which of these would you always turn to make you feel better (and why)…
Idle Hands. It’s a really silly stoner horror-comedy but my fiancée and I have a real soft spot for it.
‘Song for Martin Kippenberger’ by Meursault. It’s got such raw emotion and such energy at the same time.
Hospice by The Antlers. It’s a brutally downbeat album, to be honest, but it’s so bleak that it actually helps. To know that someone could craft such sad, emotionally charged songs makes me feel less alone.
That album’s helped me a lot, actually. My Grandfather died earlier this year and at first I wasn’t really processing it at all. The day after he died, I put that album on and lay on the floor until I couldn’t cry any longer.
A few weeks later, after his funeral, I went to a festival and saw The Antlers live. They played Kettering, my favourite track off that album, and I stood at the front bawling my eyes out. I felt better after that - it felt ok to pick myself up and move on again.
Adventure Time. It’s such a beautiful world to inhabit and it’s not afraid to touch on adult themes like depression. Ice King is my spirit animal.
The Natural History Museum or The Cutty Sark, which is a 19th century tea clipper in a dry dock at Greenwich in East London. My parents used to take me and my brother to both places all the time as kids, so visiting helps me feel centred again. I have the Cutty Sark tattooed on my right arm.
What technique do you find works best when you’re unwell?
Thought records are great when I’m suffering from anxiety - they’re one of the techniques I learned from a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Even just the process of filling one out helps calm me down.
When I’m depressed, it’s more about trying to work out what my brain needs at that specific time. It’s taken some practice, but these days I’m able to analyse my mood and get a sense of what shape my depression is taking that day.
Sometimes I need to surround myself with people, other times it’s something like going for a walk, or just giving myself permission to do nothing for a while. Sometimes just admitting I feel low and giving myself a few hours to vegetate is really helpful.
As a man with the insider knowledge and with Christmas coming up, what games can you recommend to ask Santa for?
I imagine everyone’s already asked for Fallout 4, so I’m going to say Vermintide. Vermintide is lovely. Come play Vermintide with me.
First and last gig you went to?
The first was Soulfly at the Astoria in 2003. Last one I went to was Murder by Death.
Who was your role model as a child?
This is the hardest question I’ve had so far! I’m not sure. I want to say David Attenborough because I watched nature documentaries obsessively as a child, but it was probably something daft like Hot Rod from Transformers.
What's your guilty pleasure?
Cold baked beans. There’s just something about the texture that’s infinitely better. I really hope none of my friends shun me over this.
Most embarrassing song in your library?
I own Avril Lavigne’s first two albums. When I was living in a shared house a few years ago, I invented a bizarre variant of chicken in which I put on her second album (Under My Skin) while cooking and tried to see how many tracks I could get through without either getting caught or turning it off because the fear was too much. It was called Under My Chicken Skin, which I thought was very funny.
Where do you see the video game industry in 10 years? Will be buying the PlayStation 6 or streaming games wired straight into our brains?
I’m not sure! We’ve probably got the PS4 and the XBOX One for another eight years, but I think the next consoles will be drastically different. I think virtual content libraries will take over, as will streaming games to televisions rather than having a dedicated machine. I really hope there are still handhelds - I’d be sad if Nintendo stopped iterating on the 3DS.
What’s going to be the game of 2016?
Hard to call at this stage! XCOM 2 is my most anticipated for sure, though I’m also looking forward to Mirror’s Edge 2.
What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?
Breathe. People aren’t scrutinising you as closely as you think. And you have some really awful t-shirts, by the way.
Finally, complete this sentence. It’s important to talk about male mental health because…
Staying silent about my depression did me as much harm as the depression itself.
You can keep up to date with Johnny on Twitter where he's @johnneh