Following on from my blog entry ‘The Asylum Jam Challenge’ back in May, I was excited to reach out to the founder of Asylum Jam: artist and game designer Lucy Morris.
Despite her busy schedule teaching the Bachelor of Creative Technologies programme at the prestigious Media Design School in Auckland, New Zealand, Lucy very kindly agreed to an interview so we could learn a little more about her and the Asylum Jam concept.
Donald: What is the last game you really enjoyed?
Lucy: I actually just finished playing Life is Strange from start to finish, and absolutely loved it. Not only is it a finely woven narrative experience, but it also tackles a lot of ‘taboo’ issues attributed to growing pains or young adult life that many games don’t touch or consider (i.e. sexuality, drug use, bullying, depression). …and of course, all that is aside from fantastic art and audio direction.
Life is Strange, a critically-acclaimed adventure game, praised for its coverage of ‘taboo’ subjects.
D: What do you think is the next big thing in computer gaming?
L: I think it would be naive not to recognise virtual and augmented reality are the next step for games in general. We’re already one of (if not the most) interactive mediums available, and having that extra layer of immersion in virtual reality is going to present a lot of great opportunities and challenges. VR and AR also spell great things for serious games and wellbeing – the latest fad of Pokémon Go’s AR app and how that has impacted people’s attitude towards exercise has already been discussed widely in media.
D: Are there any games you have seen that come to mind as being particularly egregious with regards to mental health?
L: I’m loathe to point fingers at any one title or studio because treating mental health with respect and mindfulness is a responsibility that falls across our entire industry, and no one game, book or movie is singularly to blame – rather it is the global normalisation of perpetuating harmful stereotypes. As for games that are particularly egregious, the worst representations are usually found in the horror genre and incorporate stereotypes that people who are mentally unwell are uncontrollably violent, antipathic, sadistic or twisted.
The ‘Moira Asylum’ from Thief 4. The Thief series has made much use of the abandoned medical asylum trope.
D: Asylum Jam is a fantastic idea, where does it originate from?
L: Thank you! Asylum Jam came about in 2013 after reading a very well written article by Ian Mahar, a neuroscience PhD candidate, addressing the state of mental illness representation in games and the stigma that comes with it. I wanted to find a constructive, positive way to explore games outside of these stereotypes, and a game jam – an event intrinsically designed to end up with an interactive artefact – seemed perfect. The jam isn’t about censorship or the policing of content, but rather challenging ourselves creatively as developers and in turn, our industry, to explore games outside of tired and harmful stereotypes. As I’m originally from New Zealand – a country where mental health is a particular issue for our society – it seemed like a natural step to take to try and create some positive discourse not only around the industry I’m part of but an ongoing issue in my own local sphere. Working to remove stigma from mental illness is a cause I’m particularly passionate about as well, as I have experienced multiple personal losses from it, and feel that we should be creating a more welcoming, accepting climate with less misinformation.
D: From previous Jams, what games have you particularly liked?
L: Two of my favourites would have to be One After Another by Elisha Ramos for Asylum Jam 2014, and Tourist by Owlcave for Asylum Jam 2015. Two very different games, but creative interpretations of the horror genre.
One After Another, one of the games produced for Asylum Jam 2014 by Elisha Ramos.
D: What has the response been like to Asylum Jam?
L: Over the years it has run, the response has been almost entirely positive, which is fantastic. Since 2015, we started developing a closer relationship with the YouTuber community as well, since horror games are often popular fodder for ‘Let’s Play’ videos, and that experience was really great. We had almost 50 YouTubers partner with Asylum Jam in 2015, and we’re hoping to expand that relationship come the next iteration. A lot of participants are returning year after year to take part as well, which is heartening. It only seems to be growing bigger, and I would like to think it is a positive force for change or exploration.
D: What other projects are you currently up to?
L: The majority of my time these days is spent doing the magical trinity of teaching (preparation, classes and marking) as I’m a tertiary lecturer in game design – but I do have a few of my own development projects on the side for when that fabled ‘free time’ arises. I also continue to do a lot of community building in my local and international games industries.
Tourist, a game produced during Asylum Jam 2015 by ‘Owlcave’.
D: Will there be an Asylum Jam 2016?
L: Definitely! Not only does the jam have a positive message, but it’s also become a fun annual event for those of us who both love developing horror games and challenging ourselves. We’ll be back in 2016, bigger and better than ever.
D: I much appreciate you taking the time to describe a little bit more about Asylum Jam and I sincerely hope the next one is even bigger and better, I certainly will be waiting with bated breath!
You can find out more about Lucy Morris and her broad range of activities within the game developer community at her website.
Authored by Donald Servant