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Interview: Checkpoint

REFRESH | We talk to author and journalist Joe Donnelly about his book Checkpoint, which looks at the intersection of video games and mental health, and makes the case that video games can save lives.

Can you tell readers a bit more about Checkpoint?

Checkpoint is a narrative non-fiction book that explores the intersections between video games and mental health. Underpinned by my own mental health journey – which involves the death of a close loved one through suicide, the quandries of seeking professional help, and a depression and anxiety disorder diagnosis among other things – the book speaks to players, game developers and mental health professionals. In doing so, it aims to illustrate the amazing power video games have to educate, inform and provide escapism, while dismantling some prevalent stereotypes and tropes about games themselves and the subject of mental health.  

What drew you to write about video games and their intersection with mental health?

As touched upon above, I lost my uncle in 2008 which in turn acted as a catalyst for my own poor mental health. In the process of seeking a career change from plumbing and gasfitting to journalism, while also in the process of seeking professional help, I began writing about a wealth of indie games that explore mental health head-on – with themes ranging from coping with depression and anxiety, to living with OCD, and the long-term impacts of alcoholism, to name but some of the interpersonal areas games such as Actual Sunlight, Neverending Nightmares and Papo and Yo portray. Given the interactive nature of video games, I found that games like these were uniquely placed to relay their message – something that extends more tangentially to all games, no matter their subject matters, as they can often provide safe spaces and virtual worlds designed to escape reality – and I was keen to show how helpful video games can be while processing and living with poor mental health.   

“I wrote Checkpoint with the hope of inspiring others in the same way video games continue to inspire me.”

Can you tell us a bit more about your own relationship with video games? What have been some standout games in your own life and do you associate any with key moments personally?

I’ve played games my entire life – from my family’s Atari ST in the late ’80s/early ’90s right through to the current generation of console hardware and high-end PCs. The puzzle game Lemmings is the one I label as the first game I ever played, and will always have a special place in my heart, and I’m an avid fan of the Grand Theft Auto series. One of my all-time standout moments while playing the latter came while exploring GTA 5’s roleplaying community (a player-run, unofficial offshoot from the base game where players use the game’s world to live lives that better reflect the real-world – players have jobs, avoid breaking the law etc.). Completely at random, I discovered a small group of players who meet up sporadically in-game to walk around the game world while chatting about their lives and problems, using the game as a place to share their stories with the structure of a pseudo mental health counselling group. To see a game otherwise rooted in virtual violence and crime used in this way was fascinating, and it’s always the story I share when talking up the power of video games. 

The pandemic began right around publication of your book, and people were forced to stay indoors; how do you think the pandemic shifted the wider population’s view or interaction with gaming? Did it, in your opinion?

I think we’re still seeing the effects of this now – many families that I spoke to over the course of the pandemic, particularly in its earliest stages, used some of their time in lockdown to sit down together and play video games. This might have seen parents, who otherwise didn’t understand the social benefits of games such as Fortnite, sitting down with their children to play and discover the educational and social value of online worlds. For some, their perceptions have been changed for the better, especially in their understanding of said social benefits and the medium’s scope for offering escapism. That said, as we (hopefully) move slowly towards the latter stages of the pandemic, and as things continue to re-open up to the world, I’ve unfortunately seen a number of people return to their previous, more negative opinions of video games. Like anything, video games can (and should, in my opinion) be enjoyed in moderation, and I’d love to think the former, more enlightened groups outweigh the latter. 

Mental health can be boosted by playing video games as a form of escapism, but there’s also great examples of games exploring mental health as a core topic more directly. Can you tell us a bit more about some stand out games and what they do? 

Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight is a sombre but brilliant game about a 30-something man struggling with the monotony of his 9-5 life, and the depression and anxiety that’s slowly taking over his life. The same creator’s Little Red Lie is a multi-faceted narrative game in the same style that in-part explores depression through the lens of someone living with someone else with depression. Depression can be a selfish condition, therefore seeing it portrayed in this way helped me appreciate how my behaviour can affect others. Neverending Nightmares by Matt Gilgenbach is a horror game and an exploration of the creator’s struggles with OCD, and how the condition manifests as images of self-harm. In-game, this is portrayed in a wonderful, eye-catching monochrome artstyle that’s equal parts alluring and terrifying.  

Checkpoint aims to illustrate the amazing power video games have to educate, inform and provide escapism.”

A core thread in your book is the idea of support: are there any organisations or people out there who you would like to shout out in this realm, whether in the mental health sphere, or creators contributing to the thriving gaming sector?

Safe In Our World is a video games and mental health charity who is doing great stuff in both areas. Gaming the Mind is another similar organisation whose social media page is definitely worth following for its insights into specific games and their overlap with themes of mental health. Take This is another gaming and mental health charity who, among many other things, has pioneered ‘AFK rooms’ at gaming expos – dedicated quiet spaces designed to let you gather your thoughts and/or chat to volunteers if required. And I’d like to give a shout out to Checkpoint’s publisher 404 Ink for sharing my vision, and working incredibly hard to help bring the book to life.

What do you hope readers take from your book?

I wrote Checkpoint as someone who loves video games and suffers from poor mental health. I know there are loads of people in similar situations, therefore I want them to know that they’re not alone. If you’ve never experienced poor mental health, there’s a good chance you know someone who has, and therefore Checkpoint aims to shine a light on all the good one of the most prolific and ubiquitous entertainment mediums can do in helping players through their darker moments. In essence, I wrote Checkpoint with the hope of inspiring others in the same video games have always and continue to inspire me.  

Checkpoint: How Video Games Power Up Minds, Kick Ass and Save Lives by Joe Donnelly is published by 404 Ink.