Gaming for Good
Can playing games help process grief? Dr. Kelli Dunlap thinks so.
Kelli Dunlap believes videogames can be a valuable tool for understanding mental health—when they aren’t demonizing the mentally ill.
“How many horror games have to take place in an asylum?” she says. “How many villains are just homicidal maniacs who want to destroy the world because they’re crazy?”
Dunlap has a doctorate in clinical psychology and a master’s in game design. It’s a combination that makes her particularly well suited for her job: director of mental-health research and design for the iThrive Games Foundation, a nonprofit that encourages developers to create positive gaming experiences for teens.
Dunlap hopes to reduce the stigma surrounding games by exploring ways they can be used to help people cope with real-world issues. She runs training workshops, speaks at gaming conferences, and conducts research into the representation of mental health in games. Here, she points us to games that she feels explore mental health in creative, thoughtful ways. She cautions that the subject matter might not be suitable for all players. “If I had a wish in this world, it would be for game developers to embrace psychologists as people who can help them,” she says, “but also for psychologists to embrace the idea that games can teach them a lot.”
This award-winning interactive story follows the ebb and flow of a relationship between 25 year-old Florence and her partner, Krish. “It taps into some of the most basic human emotions, such as love, grief, and anger, through ingenious use of touchscreen mechanics,” says Dunlap.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
In this adventure game, two brothers embark on a different type of quest: one to save their dying father. “For those who have lost someone they loved, Brothers can feel like a journey that validates the pain and struggle of grief,” says Dunlap. “For those who haven’t experienced painful loss, it’s a window into that experience.”
Developer Matt Gilgenbach’s black-and-white psychological horror game is based on his personal experience with severe depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. “The game offers a glimpse into Matt’s lived experience and provokes feelings of tension, fear, confusion, and disorientation,” says Dunlap.
Set entirely in a bedroom, this meditative experience is about taking care of yourself and rejuvenating your spirits rather than scoring high. Soothing mini games include petting a cat, solving word scrambles, and sorting laundry. “It’s gentle and nurturing, and can help facilitate self-reflection and calmness when you’re feeling overwhelmed,” Dunlap says.