This year’s EGX 2016 was held at the NEC in Birmingham, and featured the usual stellar line-up of blockbuster playable previews.  Gamers queued to sample Final Fantasy XV, Gears of War 4, Dishonored 2 and other heavyweights.  However at this annual gaming convention, as in life, I found the most interesting bits to be lurking at the margins, and the buzz around the indie games section showed I was not alone.

The National Film and Television School (NFTS) had brought along a variety of talented new game developers with a range of backgrounds – from fine art to philosophy to science – and this was reflected in the eclectic mix of games on show.  When I asked an NFTS course coordinator about the intersection between gaming and mental health, I was steered over to The Circle,  an ‘interactive virtual reality experience’ from Manos Agianniotakis.

The gameplay is about a woman dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who has cut herself off from the world following a traumatic event. You explore her back-story whilst solving a mystery inspired by the real-life Toynbee Tiles

The first-person aspects of the game feel appropriately confined, limited to the desk in front of you. Upon the desk are a computer, phone and letters, which comprise the whole of this woman’s communication with the outside world.  The use of a virtual reality (VR) format only seems to emphasise the claustrophobia of the situation.  VR was a pervasive feature of the 2016 convention as a whole, and The Circle shows that VR is not only good for first person shooters, but could also have a role in producing more complex immersive experiences with a psychological impact.

This is not Agianniotakis’s first foray into exploring mental health themes.  His previous title, An Interview is a very short interactive story based on Tim Grayburn’s personal experience of depression as depicted in the play ‘Fake it ‘till you make it’.  This project was borne out of Agianniotakis’s personal interest, rooted in an experience of depression within his own family.  It successfully meets the developer’s aim of opening a conversation about the stigma around male depression, and has been featured on MenTellHealth.org

Other gems from the indie games section included A Normal Lost Phone by Accidental Queens, in which you uncover the story of the phone’s owner by interrogating the contents of the phone (with echoes of Her Story by Sam Barlow.

John Lau’s Uncanny Valerie also raised interesting ideas about personality and relationships, as a robotics engineer decides to program her ex partner’s consciousness into a robot.  How do we cope with loss?  What would life be like if we could simply get rid of a person’s flaws?  The title also wins the prize for best pun, with a nod to the Uncanny Valley hypothesis.  This states that as robot replicas become almost but not fully human, they will elicit eeriness and revulsion amongst observers.  This cognitive response has been mapped by researchers to specific areas of the brain using fMRI

My final reflection is on the most important ingredient of EGX 2016 – the people who attend.  Often a solo pursuit, gaming conventions offer a unique opportunity for various parts of the gaming community to get together.  As someone interested in how gaming and mental health may interact, I could imagine such conventions as fertile grounds for mental health research and advocacy, both in terms of understanding mental health issues facing gamers and the potential mental health benefits of good gaming.  If we can harness this resource, and be as innovative in doing so as the game developers constantly breaking new ground, then the future looks exciting.

Authored by Fran Debell 

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