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How the Asylum Jam is giving horror a much needed shock to the heart

The horror genre has a problem.

Its longstanding love affair with mental illness often falls back on predictable and callous tropes to generate chills. But the scariest thing about this theme is how inaccurate these portrayals can be.

That's why the Asylum Jam isn't just about making horror games or raising awareness of the negative depiction of mental health in games, creator Lucy Morris told Polygon during a recent interview. It's about opening a dialogue and avoiding misleading tropes through positive methods.

Morris, based out of Düsseldorf, Germany, is the driving force and sole organizer behind the Asylum Jam — a 48-hour international event that challenges developers to make a horror game without exploiting mental illness. The jam was inspired by a Kotaku column that explores the negative outcomes of horror games that stigmatize mental illness. As a fan and frequent organizer of indie game jams, Morris saw it as an opportunity to spread awareness. Her familiarity with the topic extends to her family as well — she has a brother who works professionally in mental health.

"I think game jams are a really positive way to have a discussion on issues that would otherwise be touchy," Morris said. "The jam is not supposed to be negative in any way. It's not supposed to insult any video game developers that have made games using these tropes. It's just a positive way to explore the horror genre and move away from negatively stigmatizing mental health."

By the Asylum Jam's rules, developers are not permitted to use mental hospitals, doctors or any other commonly found themes. According to Morris, these themes do little to expand on the genre. Developers need to move past negative stereotypes in order to open a larger discussion.

"We should be looking to break out of this box and try new things, find new formulas, better ways."

But why horror? It's difficult to picture a category that feeds on thrills as the best place for sensitive conversation. However, the trope is more prevalent here than in any other type of game. According to long-time programmer and game jam participant Rita Lima, developers too often take the easy road.

"They take what has worked in the past and continue using the same formula," Lima said. "People will argue, if it's not broke don't fix it, but we work in a creative field. We should be looking to break out of this box and try new things, find new formulas, better ways."

Lima, too, has connections to professionals in the mental healthcare world through a family member. Her knowledge led her to help spread awareness of the inaccuracies perpetuated about mental illness.

"If you have any kind of mental problem, such as a nervous breakdown, you will be looked at funny or considered broken by many people," Lima said. "Continuing the stereotype of horror through mental illness only helps to make this worse."

To Morris, the problem is that fear is generated from the unknown. We're frightened when we feel vulnerable, and we fear what we don't understand. Horror and mental illness go hand-in-hand because there's a lack of education and awareness on the subject. It's represented as dangerous, scary, and not just in video games. This idea is tossed around in TV, movies, books and every imaginable form of media. And though horror can manifest itself in many ways in a game, Morris said, it falls back on that misunderstanding.

"It gives implicit permission for everyone continue to ignore them ..."

"I don't think the people that use those tropes are trying to be offensive," Morris said. "I think it's just an ingrained trope in any media. You don't actually notice these tropes. You've seen them so often. They've become so normalized you don't really realize you were using them. It seems to be the go-to sometimes — a simple hinge that you can rest a story on."

That doesn't make every game with mental disorders an offender. In one case, a developer reached out to Morris about personal experiences with schizophrenia. The developer hoped generate awareness and provide a more intimate view of what it's like to experience hallucinations and other side effects. It's exactly the kind of representation the jam is striving for: moving away from inaccurate stereotypes while providing insight.

".. or to blame them for their own problems"

"Everyone has experienced mental illness, either themselves or a friend or family member," Morris said. "To people that suffer from it, mental health isn't really entertaining. It's not a joke. It's incredibly frustrating. I wanted to do this jam to show that we can move away from these ingrained tropes and explore the horror genre."

Liz England, a designer at Insomniac Games and participant in the upcoming jam, shares a similar view. England said she's always been disappointed in the way games deal with horror due to their narrow palette.

" ... or want them locked away"

"They rely on violent, physical horror and jump scares, with only the rare glimmer of something that I personally find interesting or unsettling," England said. "None of these are themes that really draw me to the horror genre."

The best examples are, instead, games that rely on a psychologically unsettling environment. That doesn't mean an insane asylum, which is what England calls a "cheap carnival ride." There's nothing wrong with including mental illness in games, or even making a villain unstable, but England wishes to see it done with complexity. And, more importantly, with accuracy.

"There's an idea people have about what schizophrenia is — that it's raving, violent psychotic with multiple personalities — but this has no real basis in reality," England said. "People will talk about how dangerous ‘crazy' people are, but those with mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of violence than the general population.

"... rather than treat them with compassion."

"When films, games and media continue to reinforce that these people are dangerous and unhinged, it gives implicit permission for everyone continue to ignore them, or to blame them for their own problems, or want them locked away, rather than treat them with compassion," England said.

The Asylum Jam runs from Oct. 11 - 13. Signups are still open through the event's website.

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