A Video Game to Create Empathy

MAY 10, 2018
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is more than just a video game. The adult fantasy game provides a first-hand view of psychosis and the symptoms its patients often experience.

Pharmacists who enjoy video games should check it out. Those who are not gamers should observe someone else playing it, if they get the chance.

The game shows how psychosis works, and it creates empathy for those who suffer from this mental disorder.

The first time I encountered a patient with psychosis, the behavior was so erratic that it shook me. Visibly shaken, I walked away feeling that I never wanted to talk to the person again.

This reaction is normal because our innate sense of self-preservation prompts us to avoid harmful situations. "What if this person hurts me?" is a natural question to ponder. It is tempting to push people with psychosis away because they can be erratic and unpredictable.

After my initial experience with psychosis, I researched the condition in the media and did not find many examples of movies with a focus on psychosis. 12 Monkeys and The Shining are exaggerations of psychosis, but those hardly create a sense of empathy.

I watched the movie Shutter Island to understand psychosis better. Admittedly, this did not help but only made me more worried about interactions with individuals with psychosis.

When I discovered the video game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I was amazed by the feelings of empathy I had for the character in the game.

Designed with the assistance of psychosis expert Paul Fletcher, the game tells the story of Senua, a Celtic warrior whose lover is sacrificed to the Norse gods. Senua sets out to retrieve her lover's soul and lay him to rest.

The profound trauma of losing her lover likely triggered her psychosis, which results in her experiencing hallucinations and hearing voices. Throughout the game, those playing experience the same delusions, flashbacks, and outside voices that Senua does.

“Because of her experiences, Senua has lost touch with the reality of those around her. That’s really the formal definition of psychosis,” Fletcher said.

“We are coming to realize that there’s a continuum [of psychosis], and all of us are prone to becoming separate from reality," he said. "Hopefully, this game will help to demonstrate that.”


To shed light on a misunderstood and often feared community of people, the game’s designers donated $80,000 collected on World Mental Health Day to Rethink Mental Illness. This group supports those who suffer from mental illness by campaigning to change the public’s perspective on the topic, as well as to provide services to those who directly suffer from it.
The game depicts all the voices that Senua hears throughout her journey, both the ones that berate her and help her.

This is what the game does so well. Players hear voices from the left and right, taunting her and questioning every decision she makes. Ultimately, of course, they are the player's decisions, because he or she controls Senua. The player experiences the suffering that she endures to try to save her lover’s soul.

Game developers worked closely with patients to capture psychotic episodes as realistically as possible.

I remember thinking how hard it would be to function in that kind of chaos and empathizing with the character. I wanted to finish the game so I could have the satisfaction of knowing that she emerged from her situation.

The game is for mature audiences, because of it intense violence. It is best played with headphones or surround sound to experience the voices that Senua hears the same way she does.

For pharmacists, familiarizing themselves with this video game represents a small step to take toward understanding what patients with psychosis endure daily.
 


Alex Barker, PharmD
Alex Barker, PharmD
Alex Barker is the founder of The Happy PharmD, which helps pharmacists create an inspiring career, break free from the mundane "pill-flipping" life. He is a Full-time Pharmacist, Media Company founder, franchise owner, Business Coach, Speaker, and Author. He's also the Founder of Pharmacy School HQ, which helps students get into pharmacy school and become residents.
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