So let me preface this by saying that I am a huge Batman fan and he is my absolute favorite comic book character. I love the grittiness, anti-hero-ness and general badassery that surrounds the character in (almost) every incarnation (and I love Christopher Nolan’s adaptation.) So naturally, back when the game Arkham Asylum came out, I was incredibly stoked.
Then I played it, and became caught in a dilemma.
Yes, the game had excellent graphics, excellent gameplay, everything that was to be hoped for and more. But I quickly found that the game’s portrayal of the mentally ill does nothing to help with stigma. If nothing else, it seems to imply that most, if not all of its patients, are beyond helping (and the only good way to deal with them is to beat them senseless.)
Now, yes, it’s true that the only patients we actually see in the game are the violent ones (and that one guy still locked in his cell who paces back and forth in a truly disturbing way.) But still, its portrayal of what a mental hospital is like is very dehumanizing. The people who work there apparently mistreat their patients (electrical weapons for making them “compliant”, anyone?) and they are shown to be the relative “good” guys, the ones you’re rescuing. So basically, the game injects the mainstream world with the ideas that “crazy” people are always violent and that mental wards are dark, creepy, terrible places to be. And if that doesn’t take us a step back in de-stigmatizing mental illness, I don’t know what does.
I am well aware that the game heavily incorporated elements from a graphic novel by the same name. I’ve read it. I own a copy. It’s an amazing piece of work. It was the first comic to incorporate serious psychological elements, and the first to effectively explore Batman’s own sanity. And it does a really good job of doing these things, as well as providing the backstory of the asylum, all in a dream-like, eerie way (really, if you want a taste of what the disjointed thinking of psychosis feels like, read the graphic novel. I read somewhere that the author approximated that kind of thinking by depriving himself of sleep in order to write it.) It delves into the idea of madness, but it’s not offensive. So, no problems with the graphic novel the game was based on.
I don’t know, maybe I’m just seeing the game in the wrong light. As I mentioned, you do only see the violent patients, and I think it’s completely justifiable to fight back someone who is trying to kill you.
I haven’t played the sequel yet, but I intend to. Until then, I’ll just remain stuck with my feelings on the first, torn between loving the game for being, well, a great game, and disliking it for being so stigmatizing.