Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be in a psychiatric hospital, on a journey towards self actualization? Well thanks to Psychasthenia 2 you can find out!
Psychasthenia 2 is a video game that’s not actually a video game… The creators of the website, are known as Psychasthenia Studios, an art collective that is based in North Carolina, or more specifically Joyce Rudinsky and Victoria Szabo. They describe this project as “Interactive artwork that explores the culture of psychological diagnosis and treatment within the context of highly mediated consumer culture that often produces the ills it purports to treat…” In simpler terms the website/”game” aims to make observations on the culture around mental illness in a historical and social context and they do a pretty good job at doing that. According to Merriam Webster the meaning of the word Psychathenia is “a neurotic state characterized by phobias, obsessions or compulsions that one knows is irrational”.
Psychasthenia 2 is the follow up to Psychasthenia Studio’s previous project unsurprisingly named Psychasthenia 1. The first “game” is about getting diagnosed with psychasthenia. It’s structured as multiple choice questions about different situations, however every answer will always give you the same response, that you have psychasthenia. The second “game” focuses on how to cope with your diagnoses. Although labeled in number order you do not have to experience Psychasthenia 1 in order to grasp the ideas and story in Psychasthenia 2.
Although you as a user cannot actually interact with the “game”, it is brought to life by a series of 6 videos, along with descriptions to help contextualize the videos and a few pictures from the “game”. The 3D world itself was made in Unity, a game development software. The setting is an inpatient psychiatric hospital. There are 5 levels with different “challenges” for your character to complete in order to reach self actualization and be discharged. These levels are based on the 5 levels of Maslow’s self actualization pyramid; physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and finally self-actualization.
Psychasthenia 2 has a relatively basic website layout. Simple colors, not many pages to click into, just scroll down for all the information you need. This works well because its the content they want you to really think about, so having a complex and flashy website that is hard to navigate would drastically take away from the message they are trying to convey. However they definitely could have easily made a minimalistic website that does look a little nicer. The gray background on the site and small text are not very appealing. It also feels like a very 2000’s type of site, it did not age well in terms of style.
The videos are guided by your psychologist Dr. Carl Abraham who will often appear on a screen to tell you about what your in game character is feeling and the challenges you will soon endure. The art style is interesting in that it seems somewhat uncomfortable giving the sense of panic your character is feeling.
Although I find the layout of the “game” very interesting and unlike anything I have ever seen before, I think the message would be much more effective if the website was truly interactive and this was an actual short video game. The concept is cool and in a way it may makes sense that as the patient you have no control over your mental illness and thus your actions, however it does take the audience out of the experience. Makes you feel more like a viewer and not the patient/player.
The descriptions of the videos give you a good understanding of what is going on. Within the videos Dr. Carl also is very helpful, however prompts would often come onscreen quickly and I found myself often pausing the video in order to read the prompts. The constant pausing of the video did not help in this immersive experience Psychasthenia is trying to produce. This is yet another reason why for me an at your own pace real video game would be much more effective.
For a website where the main focus is the systematic issues of society and mental illness their website is not very inclusive for those with audio and visual impairments.
When I ran the website through wave.webaim.org to check its accessibility it showed that none of the images on the website had alternate text for those who are visually impaired. On top of that there are no subtitles for the videos making those who have auditory problems unable to use and view this content. This makes the people who are able to view and use this website very limited. People who have these types of impairments also can relate to mental illness. By limiting who can use this website and “game” you are losing a large audience base who can also find meaning in this content.
Even if you do not have some type of visual disability the video’s which are played on Vimeo have a quality of 480p making the frequent pop up texts in the “game” very difficult and sometimes impossible to read. These texts are important for fully understanding each level and how they relate to the goal of self-actualization. Having the video quality so low that you can barely read the text takes away from the experience they worked so hard to convey. The video descriptions often have some psychology vocab. Several of these words I had to look up making it clear that this content is mostly aimed towards older more educated people who will fully understand the message.
All in all I think this is one of the cooler website concepts I have seen out there and I very much appreciate the art and time that went into making it. However, as previously stated I strongly believe a fully interactive short game or full game would have made the story they are trying to convey so much more powerful. There are a good handful of “problems” one can find within this website but it does not seem to take too much away from the message of the game and you can still get a good comprehension of what is going on.
The “journey” this game takes you on is a very interesting one that I think although it is virtual and exaggerated in some ways, it still holds true to reality. Their goal of showing the challenges of mental illness was successful, at least from my perspective. They did not glorify or romanticize mental illness, instead they showed that it’s a process and not an easy one, one with many unexpected twists and turns. As someone with anxiety, I was surprised at how much I personally could relate to some of the levels and the madness that was within them.
The Psychasthenia Studios team did an overall good job at getting their desired message across but could definitely use some fine tuning within their website here and there. I would however recommend this project to anyone interested in how you can use media in ways that it might not be necessarily traditionally designed for.