Survival horror can exist without offensive tropes: Lucy Morris presents Asylum Jam

Joe Donnelly September 20, 2013 - 11:00 am

Asylum Jam is a game jam which aims to raise awareness and challenge the misconceptions associated with survival horror gaming and mental illness. BeefJack caught up with the jam’s coordinator Lucy Morris to find out more.

Asylum-Jam Lucy Morris is a busy individual. By day she works for one of the world’s biggest games companies, and by night she’s an indie developer, not to mention a games artist. Alongside her busy day job, and her extra curricular endeavours, Lucy is also coordinating Asylum Jam – a game jam aimed to challenge the false correlation that exists between survival horror games and mental illness. Lucy tells BeefJack she is “no stranger to hosting game jams,” but that this is the first international jam which she has overseen. She notes that it’s proven quite challenging so far, but is also very exciting.

What inspired you to set up Asylum Jam and what will entail and hope to achieve?

Well, I’m a huge advocate of game jams. When I moved to this area of Germany, there was no indie community, or any sort of game jam events, so I started up a developers group here and we now have over 60 developers which I organise. I see game jams as such a positive and productive way to explore issues in the industry or genres that we usually don’t have time to explore if we’ve got a job or others things like that, so I really wanted to set up a jam of my own.

I was inspired after reading Ian Mahars article on Kotaku which was talking about negative depictions of mental illness in videogames. I’ve taken part in quite a lot of jams that have a positive take on social industry issues before like iamagamer, which was run by Kimberly Voll, in reply to a Gamasutra article that no new games with strong female leads would sell. So, quite often game jams have a positive way of approaching an issue in industry or an issue that has social stigma or something like that.

The industry is quite under fire at the moment, a lot of issues are being brought up. Often the discussions can get quite aggressive from both sides. Negativity breeds more negativity, so if you do something positive, hopefully it will breed positivity as well. I think it’s best to react using a positive way rather than a negative one; that’s why I think game jams are a good vehicle for this.

What sort of interest has the jam garnered and how has it been received so far?

Well we’ve had some coverage so far, and all of the reaction I’ve seen has been positive, which is of course great. Really my job at the moment is just to get more people involved, and encourage that positive reaction, which I hope will continue. The more people we have participating in it, the more awareness we can raise, and that’s obviously the main goal of the jam.

Many survival horror developers claim that the asylum is the antagonist and not those who reside within, but this line appears to be almost always crossed, why do you think this is?

Cliched tropes are part of the media, really. The problem is that using asylums and using people that are negatively portrayed as mentally ill just seems like a lazy way out to utilize the horror genre, and I think a big reason why people find these sort of games scary is because of lack of understanding of psychiatric issues, or things derived from what we don’t know. Obviously I think there’s a lot more public awareness that could be generated regarding mental issues.

The reason why I think they say that the asylum is the antagonist is because it’s an easy way to circumvent a negative stigma as to why they’re doing it. [By doing so] It’s easy to justify [this choice]. It’s best not to perpetuate negative perceptions of people with mental health issues. At the same time, I don’t want to insult anyone who’s made these sorts of games – it is quite a common trope in the genre – but at the same time I think there’s a bigger discussion we could have about horror gaming. And it’s especially a discussion which a lot of indie developers have been really successful with recently – all of the examples that I put on the website, I realise are all indie games.

BeefJack’s own Jamie Donnelly previously spoke to Red Barrel Games, the creators of the forthcoming survival horror game, Outlast. Collectively, they stated that “we fear what we don’t understand and asylums are full of people with disturbing behaviours”, the insinuation being we don’t understand mental illness. Asylum creator Agustin Cordes echoed a similar line. To me, this appears to be a stigma which is almost ingrained in the mindset of wider society. How will Asylum Jam challenge something which has almost been normalised in popular culture?

As indie games have already proved, you don’t need to use these sort of lazy or ingrained tropes to create a good horror. For example, you have Slender: The Eight Pages – I think that was a very quick indie game that was made, but was based on tension and not seeing the enemy, rather than setting it in an asylum or something like that. I think it would actually benefit game developers a lot to explore the genre more than just reusing these tropes over and over again, because there are a huge amount of fans of horror gaming.

And, I mean, the bigger the discussion we can have about it, it’s something which is going to benefit the gamers more. We also don’t want to perpetuate these misconceptions because one in four people suffer from mental illness according the World Health Organisation, and there’s already enough stigma about it; people think they’re overly violent or unapproachable. That’s why people are often apprehensive to admit that they’ve had a mental illness. It’s just about creating a safer environment, I guess.

I don’t want to jump the gun as you’re still a while away from the first Asylum Jam, but depending on its success, will there be more, will it be an annual thing?

I was planning it as a one-off thing because most of the other jams that have shared this sort of goal have been a one-off event. But if it has a lot of interest, I wouldn’t mind doing it again.

Asylum Jam will take place from October 11-13. For more information, head over to the jam’s webpage, or follow Asylum Jam on Twitter.

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