We were delighted to interview Joe Donnelly, who is the author of Checkpoint, which explores how video games can contribute positively to our mental health through personal journeys, discussions and interviews. Safe In Our World was able to be a part of Checkpoint, through an interview between Joe and Leo Zullo, our Co-Founder and Chairperson.
The book begins by telling the story about your uncle, Jim. Do you have any words on how to cope with loss, for readers who might be suffering the same thing?
This is sort of stating the obvious, but loss is such a personal and idiosyncratic experience, so I think the first piece of advice I could ever offer anyone is: do not compare yourself with anyone else. Your feelings are your feelings, which is something worth remembering and reminding yourself of in the wake of a loved one’s passing. I’ve lost a few loved ones in my life, but the nature of my uncle Jim’s is the hardest I’ve faced. With the virtue of hindsight, I’d say: know that it’s okay for things not to make sense, especially in the early stages of the grieving process. Suicide is so confusing and in its aftermath it’s natural to consider the ‘what if’ elements – what if they’d spoken out, what if I could have done more, what if X, Y and Z had or hadn’t happened etc. Let yourself have these thoughts, process them, don’t feel guilty about having them, but try not to obsess over them as doing so can be unhealthy long term. Talking to those around you is key in coping with loss, letting people know where your head is at, and what you might do to overcome your lows whenever you’re ready to do so. Disregard any notions of British stiff upper-lip-ness and get talking – speaking from experience, keeping regular dialogues with family and friends helped me so, so much.
Within the book, you explore the mechanics of permadeaths in games, and whether these can broaden our perception of loss within real life. Do you feel as though games have broadened your perception of permanence? How else do you think game mechanics can teach us about real-life scenarios and obstacles?
Games have absolutely broadened my perception of permanence, and not just from games which explicitly tackle themes of mental health and mental illness – such as Actual Sunlight (Will O’Neill) which deals with permanence as it relates to suicidal thoughts; Neverending Nightmares which explores permanence through the lens of the developer’s (Matt Gilgenbach) OCD; and Papo & Yo which tackles alcoholism and the enduring nature of addiction, to name but a few. Genre games which include permadeath – Darkest Dungeon, The Long Dark, Spelunky, XCOM 2 – force you to consider every move, every decision and every action, in the same way we do in real life. When writing Checkpoint I heard an analogy tied to both this and player agency that said: when we play games, we put ourselves into the player’s shoes. We don’t say Mario died, for example, we say I or we died. I think that can speak directly to our understanding of permanence and player agency both in-game and in the real world.
Your book, and a lot of other people have stressed the call for more research within the sphere of gaming and mental health. What questions would you be interested in exploring through research of this nature?
As outlined in Checkpoint, I’m by no means a mental health professional, but I’d like to see more studies on what we can learn about mental health through the lens of gaming. Be that from indie games which explore suicide, depression and anxiety on a more explicit level, to the potential benefits of socialising in games like Minecraft, GTA 5, Fortnite, Sea of Thieves and The Sims. I’d like to see more studies on how overcoming challenges and obstacles in games like Dark Souls can improve our sense of worth, and, looking back to question two, how permadeath games can help us appreciate permanence in reality more than we already do. There are a number of studies out there already which are scratching the surface on all of the above, but I’d love to see some real deep dives into the process, with more empirical data (as much as this is possible) and case studies relevant to games from different genres, with different mechanics and with varying budgets.
For the benefit of those who have not read Checkpoint, what made you decide to write a book on mental health and video games?
I decided to write Checkpoint as a means of telling my own mental health journey following my uncle’s suicide in 2008. At the time, I was working as a plumber and gasfitter, and, as a lifelong gamer, I threw myself into my hobby as a means of escaping the harshness of the reality around me at the time. As a result of my uncle’s death, my own mental health spiralled and, after travelling to Australia for a couple of years, I returned to find my mental health at its worst. Between times, I pursued a degree in journalism, and specialised in writing about video games for a number of mainstream and specialist publications, and ultimately wrote a monthly column on games and mental health for VICE. During this time, I discovered a number of games which tackled themes of mental health head-on (including the ones noted above), and, through playing them, sought professional help for my own state of mind. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and have been on a course of daily medication for the last several years. After my VICE work was discontinued, I felt I had more to say about games, mental health, my own journey and the integral role video games played throughout. I pitched my idea for a narrative nonfiction memoir to Edinburgh-based publisher 404 Ink, and I was delighted when they agreed to take me on.
There are multiple testaments from different people, each with their own compelling stories behind how video games have helped their mental health. Do you feel there is a sense of community around this shared experience?
Definitely, and I think that’s the essence of Checkpoint: gaming is so often a shared experience, and the same should apply to mental health discourse. Before writing the book, I was very clear that I wanted to include stories from other players and gaming enthusiasts, and had envisioned a single chapter dedicated to their tales. It was, however, my publisher 404 Ink who suggested we intersperse the stories throughout, and I’m so glad they did – I think it works really well in not only breaking up my narrative but also highlighting how common and relatable mental health issues are, both big and small. I’ve had some lovely and encouraging feedback since publication, including shared stories, which again, I believe, underscores the importance of the book’s message.
What is the main take-home that you’d want your readers to come away with after reading Checkpoint?
Further to question four, I wanted to tell a story which was relatable. Again, everyone’s mental health journey is unique to them, but there was always going to be similarities or parts which overlap. I wanted to illustrate the power of video games as a storytelling tool and how the interactive and persuasive nature of the medium leaves it uniquely placed to inform and educate. The take home message, then, isn’t necessarily about mental health per se, it’s about broadening our understanding of video games and their place in important discussions.
You can find Joe Donnelly on Twitter
You can purchase Checkpoint at 404Ink
Press Kit for Checkpoint