Playing Autobiographically with Depression

Adan is a PhD student in English and cultural studies at McMaster University. Her work explores the intersection of Mad studies, gaming, and auto/biography. When not working on her comps, she’s reading the comic book series Saga or replaying Dragon Age 2.


I’m standing in a telephone booth, talking to myself from the past. “What’s it like to escape?” my past self asks, “Do you feel any different? Sometimes I’m scared I’ll get out and things will be exactly the same as before.”

1) No, I’m really the same person now as I was back then.

2) It actually does change, I don’t feel like the same person at all.

I realize I’ve begun to cry—and in this case, I don’t mean my avatar.

Welcome to The Beginner’s Guide.

Part empathy role-playing game (RPG) and part self-reflexive exploration of game design, Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide (2015) showcases the potential for games to act as a medium of playable self-narrative. In The Beginner’s Guide, playing with depression allows me to bring my own experiences with mental illness into the game world and shape the narrative into a piece of life-writing and mad identity performance. This process of performing a mad subjectivity produces a radical narrative not typically available in media emerging from an ableist/sanist society, or expressible within that society and culture.

In The Beginner’s Guide the player navigates a series of designed spaces whilst a narrator, Davey, explains that these are mini games and/or unfinished games created by his friend, Coda, and offers an analysis of these playable vignettes. Seeing through the character’s eyes, the player moves through or within an area, exploring the limited arena of play—and limitations, smallness, and confinement are recurring motifs across the 18 episodes. Some games include puzzle solving or dialogue trees. Other games would be unplayable without the narrator providing shortcuts—for example, Davey opens a locked door at one point, and provides a bridge over an invisible maze.

In this exploration of game design, the themes of depression and anxiety emerge both in the game’s content and the accompanying narration. The chapter entitled “Island” ends in a small room; the player is encouraged to read the writing on the walls such as “Please, someone talk to me,” “Hello? Is someone there?” and “I feel empty” to the sounds of a person sobbing. Sometimes, I think it might be you. “Island,” “Down,” and “Theater” all end with the player in a prison, while “Escape” involves a series of domestic spaces transformed into prisons. I often linger in the cavernous room in “Notes,” which riffs on the practice of leaving notes in online games for other players to find:

“Scared of writing something. Don’t want to be judged”

“i need someone to talk to”

“I would like very much to be desired”

“recognize me please”

“Maybe i’ll feel real someday”

“Take my hand, let’s jump together”

Suicide and self-harm enter the game in the first chapter, “Whisper,” a first person shooter (FPS) that provides no enemy to kill. In the finale of this chapter, the player is asked to sacrifice themselves in order to save absent others; throwing oneself on a beam of electricity, the player, rather than meeting a conventional “game over” death, is transported up into outer space, drifting through the universe. Unlike the unrealized suicide signified by the gun that has only one potential human target (the player), this sacrificial death merges suicide with salvation and the death at the end is rendered ambiguous. The gun returns in one of the last chapters, “Machine,” in which the player is encouraged to berate the broken or malfunctioning machine-brain and destroy all of the previous games, before turning the gun on the machine itself. I read this chapter as an expression of performing violence against the self: when I press the trigger, I practice digital self-harm.

The narrator Davey interprets these games as expressions of loneliness and isolation, and diagnoses the game designer with social anxiety and depression. At the end of the game, however, the player realizes that the narrator is the one with depression shaping his feelings into narrative through the game medium, and the game designer himself remains an enigma: “The fact that you think I am frustrated or broken says more about you than about me” (“Tower”). The relationship between Davey and Coda mirrors the relationship between player and game. While Davey makes actual design changes to the games, inserting lampposts as end goals and adding shortcuts to non-playable vignettes, the player makes choices within the game world that impacts the play experience. As an interactive medium, games are inherently a collaborative process between designer and player. Just as the designer may code their own experience of mental illness into a game, the player may ‘play’ their experiences into existence through the options afforded to them.

The Beginner’s Guide is an example of what Ian Bogost terms “empathy games,” which “foster empathy for…real world situations” (19). The game joins an emerging subgenre of mad empathy RPGs, including choose-your-own-adventure games like Depression Quest, which is about living with depression, and There Are Monsters Under Your Bed and Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before, which employ speculative fiction to explore eating disorders and self-harm. Actual Sunlight is an interactive narrative about a man living with depression in a distinctly neoliberal society, while Dear Esther is an exploring game in which the player wanders the landscape of their own traumatized mind. In these games I have committed digital suicide many times over, thinking about you, drunk on the roof; and you, breathing carbon monoxide; thinking about when she told me you threatened to throw yourself out a window. Almost, almost I understand that feeling. I do it. I take my avatar to the roof of the building and I jump. (Take my hand, let’s jump together).

The first-person positioning of The Beginner’s Guide provides the opportunity for heightened player identification with the unseen avatar, and the freedom to explore (my confinement) allows me to bring personal experience and affect into the game world and play autobiographically. In “Life Writing Versus Automedia: The Sims 3 Game as Life Lab,” Julie Rak argues that sandbox games like The Sims offer players the opportunity to explore different aspects of their identities through play; she cites a player who explored and expressed a queer identity through The Sims 3 (166). Through gaming, players are beginning to engage in what Mary Gray terms “identity work” (176), re-thinking selfhood beyond the terms of the dominant cultural narrative in spaces of play. In a game space that encourages depressed play, I explore a depressed/mad identity that is often censored, concealed or silenced in off-screen spaces.

Playing within the narrow game spaces resonates with my out-of-game experiences of smallness: “House,” in which the player is locked in a house cleaning it over and over again, a tableau of manic mundane domesticity, evokes days when I live within a three-block radius from my apartment; days when making a cup of coffee (carefully, precisely) takes the same amount of energy as writing a term paper. In “Escape”, trapped in a series of confined spaces, living rooms with barred windows and patches of grass and sky cordoned off by an invisible bell jar, I recognize that feeling of tightness when I stuffed my feelings inside my ribcage to attend a graduate seminar, worrying that it would leak onto the conference table and discredit my work. When I play “Notes,” I read what Coda writes to himself, and I look at where I penned the word “Breathe” or “It’s Ok” my forearm or the back of my hand, just to remind myself. It’s Ok, everything is going to be Ok. Inhale. Exhale.

It is through these limited and limiting spaces of play that the game creators generate an experience of meaningful play, which Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman identify as the primary goal of successful game design (3). They argue that the construction of meaning is connected to the significance of a player’s decisions within the game: “When a player makes a choice within a game, the action that results from the choice has an outcome” (3). Mad empathy RPGs, however, construct meaning by limiting or negating choices within the game world in order to mimic the objective and subjective confinement that accompanies many experiences of mental illness.

As feelings of depression and anxiety are marginalized and pathologized in neoliberal society, framed as waste and the depressive body as wasted, persons with mental illness become understood as flawed citizens requiring medical intervention—procedures that range from pharmacotherapy to talk therapy, confinement to the psych ward in a hospital to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). This reflects a broader framework of dismissing disability; Tanya Titchkosky argues that “disability is recognized as nothing but a limitation, even, a negation” (111). In The Beginner’s Guide, however, depression is a creative as well as a destructive force, and the motivating factor behind game design and storytelling. Kathleen Stewart writes that “Agency can be strange, twisted, caught up in things, passive, or exhausted. Not the way we like to think about it. Not usually a simple projection toward a future” (86). Agency can be located in playing yourself into a prison again and again. Agency can be found in telling your past self that things get better; or that they don’t; in cleaning a house compulsively; in choosing to play this, now, in attending to the smallness of the self, in passively watching the screen or actively walking up the three dimensional staircase. In one play-through of “Whisper” I used the gun to create a bullet-hole heart on a locked door, a form of artistic self-expression enabled by the game. There is meaning in these movements. There is the creation of a story. There is play.

There is contagion.  Affects are dynamic, affects are contagious: “The affective subject is a collection of trajectories and circuits. You can recognize it through fragments of past moments glimpsed unsteadily in the light of the present like the flickering light of a candle” (Stewart 59). My depression bleeds into yours, the unseen arm holding the phone has your scars, and my scratches (faded, you’d have to look close to see the faint white marks, like a road winding itself across a Settlers of Catan board). And now the unseen legs have your cuts, the ones you still hide under jeans and long shorts; the ones I’ve never seen. As I play I wonder who else is playing, who else has played, who else is writing their lives into digital stories, shaping the avatar in their image.  If autobiography is the genre of the “I,” then life-gaming embeds that I carefully within a “we,” as other choices in the game are made visible to the player. I play my feelings out across a landscape of other feelings; I play this single-player game and recognize that someone left those notes about loneliness for themselves and for me; I understand that other players may be sharing my experience or variations of it. “Notes” ends with a soundtrack of whispering voices, perhaps signifying the broader audience of players that experience the game alongside me. The narrator admits that when reading these notes, “I feel less lonely, too.” I am alone; I am not alone. (Sylvia Plath wrote I am, I am, I am).

Playing autobiographically becomes a political strategy of asserting agency and insisting on personal experience. From second wave feminism’s assertion that “the personal is political,” marginalized populations have employed self-narrative as a tactic of resistance. Indeed, Ann Cvetkovich, in Depression: A Public Feeling, insists that “the personal voice has persisted as an important part of feminist scholarship” (9), and structures her own text as a hybrid of memoir and conventional academic essay. Playing my experiences as a woman with depression into a story becomes a political act. Writing about my experiences of play, and depression, interwoven through an academic rhetoric that historically has marginalized both madness and women, is a political act. Through autobiographical play, mad players continue to insist that our lives are expressible and worthy of expression.

I stand in the telephone booth. I ask myself, “Do you feel any different? Sometimes I’m scared I’ll get out and things will be exactly the same as before.” I ask myself, “What do I have to do?”

Recognize me, please

Take my hand, let’s

“Just talk to me,” I tell myself. “I will be here for as long as you need me.”

Then I reload the chapter.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. How To Do Things With Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Print.

Briscoe, Robert and Dan Pinchbeck. Dear Esther. 2012. Videogame.

Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Web. 6 July 2016.

Gray, Mary L. “Negotiating Identities/Queering Desires: Coming Out Online and the Remediation of the Coming-Out Story.” identity technologies: constructing the self online. Ed. by Anna Poletti and Julie Rak. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014. 167-197. Print.

O’Neill, Will. Actual Sunlight. 2013. Videogame.

Quinn, Zoe. Depression Quest. 2013. Videogame.

Rak, Julie. “Life Writing Versus Automedia: The Sims 3 Game as Life Lab.” Biography. 38.2 (2015): 155-180. Web. 5 March 2016.

Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Web. 5 March 2016.

Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Titchkosky, Tanya. Reading & Writing Disability Differently: The Textured Life of Embodiment. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Print.

Tremblay, Kaitlin. Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before. 2013. Videogame.

Tremblay, Kaitlin. There Are Monsters Under Your Bed. 2013. Videogame.
Wreden, Davey. The Beginner’s Guide. 2015. Videogame.