In 2003, Ken Hall was art director for Realtime Words, the large video game developer that made APB, which later became APB Reloaded, a highly popular free-to-play video game. At the time, free-to-play games, where players get most of the game for free but must pay to unlock the rest of the game or improve their performance, were still in their infancy. The strategy was aimed at hooking the casual gamer, but Hall had a rude awakening, perhaps like Dr. Frankenstein might have felt when his company received data showing gamers in South Korea were playing as much as 35 hours a week, and that was on top of their day jobs. He thought, what kind of monster have we created?
“We were inadvertently creating compulsive gameplay loops,” Hall says. “This was long before people were worried about the addictiveness and the compulsiveness of video games. But I really wasn’t happy with the consequences of what we were creating.”
Hall decided to step back from the video game industry. He began creating large-scale public artworks, like a massive “Pin Art” installation that lit up at night and that people could push pins into and out of to create their own art. To raise awareness about the environment, he created a life-sized orca skeleton inspired by a real whale that had washed ashore in Canada and had what was at that time the highest toxicity of any marine mammal ever recorded.
Hall liked passion projects. Earlier in his gaming career, he worked on a game called B-17 Flying Fortress, a flight simulator involving World War II-era B-17 bombers as they flew across wartime Europe. For the project, he interviewed aviators who flew those planes to make sure the game portrayed their experiences accurately. He was so enamored with the experience that he went on to record interviews with soldiers who were in Sherman tanks during the war. During his hiatus from the industry, he created an audio book of their experiences. Most were about 80 years old when Hall interviewed them, but they still felt the darkness of the war in their psyches. One said he had woken a few times in the middle of the night and started choking his wife because he thought she was a German soldier. Another said he would wake up on his bedroom floor, trying to get out of a burning tank. Another was driving through Swindon with his mother 35 years after the war when a crack of thunder went off and he threw the car into reverse at full speed. His mother had to keep yanking on his arm to bring him back and get him to stop.
“What it really brought home to me was that not only did these people suffer from their trauma, but that suffering has lasted for the rest of their lifetimes,” Hall says.
When he reentered the video game field in 2017, he wanted to create a game that conveyed not just the battles of war but the lasting consequences. The result is Destiny’s Sword, which is available now on Steam in early access.
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Destiny’s Sword is a sci-fi adventure where players command a squad of futuristic peace-keeping troops. But it’s not just about battlefield performance. It’s also about paying attention to the squad’s mental health. The player assumes the role of commander of a squad of soldiers, but if you don’t tend to your team’s psychological state and watch their non-verbal cues, the group’s performance is affected. You have to be observant: Is someone on your team suffering from PTSD? Anxiety? Are they drinking? Do they have bags under their eyes, indicating they are tired? Are they having nightmares and getting into fights? The developers wanted players to gain empathy for their squad members as they were shepherded through their recovery process, missions, and duty assignments.
“We don’t want players to experience what it’s like to be a soldier on the battlefield. Nobody wants to experience that because it’s hell,” Hall says. “Instead, we show you what the character is dealing with, in the aftermath, in trying to cope with their experiences.”
If video games are rife with violence, empathy may be the antidote, research shows. Adolescents are far less likely to imitate video game violence when the consequences of the behavior are shown, said Sarah Coyne, a video game researcher at Brigham University in Provo, Utah.
“Including the emotional trauma is a great way to make the games more realistic and to decrease harm to players,” she says.
But Hall didn’t just want to address the consequences of war. He wanted to deal with the nefarious side of game development: the mechanics inside of games that encourage compulsiveness in players—like if you log off or stay away from the game for too long your crops will die because you haven’t watered them or your enemy will overpower you.
“You can clearly tell those games because they’ll sell you a shield for money that will allow you to sleep well at night,” Hall explains.
His game, by contrast, stops benefiting users if they play too long.
While some big game developers and publishers have psychologists on staff who design games with the kind of loops that encourage compulsive behavior, 2DogsGames has a physiologist on staff to make sure their game doesn’t. The company also brought in Ramin Shokrizade, a game economy expert and an outspoken advocate for ethical game design and monetization. Shokrizade worked on World of Warships and World of Tanks: Blitz, for instance, and neither contained such mechanisms when he helped create them—though he says those kinds of gimmicks were inserted after he left Wargaming, the company that developed the games.
“Destiny’s Sword doesn’t contain any consumer-hostile mechanisms, like gambling, gacha, fun pain, threat generation, and unfair time requirements,” Shokrizade says.
Destiny’s Sword wouldn’t be the first game to incorporate a character’s mental health. Many of the video games based on the works of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, such as the Darkest Dungeon games, involve psychological themes. And in the game Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, mental health is core to the narrative and the gameplay. But in Destiny’s Sword, the developers treated the human soldiers in the game like actual people, taking combat mental health experts’ advice on how to model the characters so that they seemed realistic, Shokrizade explains.
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“Managing their physical injuries and their mental health stress is equally important to success in the game,” he says. “Normally mental health is ignored in games, and even physical injuries just magically disappear after every battle, if not sooner.”
But creating a kinder, gentler video game has financial repercussions. When 2DogsGames approached investors for money, the going was tough. The team had hoped for $10 million. They wound up with about $1.5 million: $1 million from the Canada Media Fund and $550,000 in loans from a Toronto business enterprise center that were secured against Hall’s house. They’d hoped to make a massively multi-player game. They got enough to make a single-player game.
It wasn’t for lack of effort, either: 2DogsGames approached over 60 potential funding sources, many of which took Hall through the six-month due diligence cycle. But attempts fell short in part because funders hesitated to finance the free-to-play model, given that players have begun to recoil from the gaming mechanics and monetization models that are increasingly being viewed as predatory, Hall says. At the same time, he believes investors were reluctant to fund his project because they feared it wouldn’t make money without those predatory models. He acknowledges that the more touchy-feely psychological aspects didn’t help his cause, as it meant the game was likely to appeal to a less traditional demographic.
But it’s a demographic that clearly exists, Hall says, as evidenced by the highly successful Life is Strange games, which also make mental health part of the gameplay. Even so, funders feared the target demographic wouldn’t buy the game.
“We were a startup doing an innovative game—one that was based on emotional engagement with the characters—with a monetization model that was essentially the opposite of what the industry standard is. This caused a lot of hesitation, and basically all of the investors we approached were initially excited but eventually decided to take a ‘see how it does’ approach,” says Hall.
“It’s a well-intentioned product, but it may be a bit ham-fisted, in that it was so overtly about mental health,” says Nick Bowman, a video game researcher at Syracuse University.
In a game like Spec Ops: The Line, a third-person shooter game, the developer also raised the issue of mental health in war, but more subtly, Bowman says. The main character in the game slowly goes through deep mental degradation, and by the end of the game, you’re not even sure if he’s a good person anymore. But gamers don’t play it to feel things. They play it to shoot stuff. With Destiny’s Sword, the issue of mental health becomes so obvious and upfront that it’s no longer recreational: It’s educational. That’s fine for a small group of people, but it’s unlikely to appeal to a large funding campaign in the AAA space, Bowman says.
He was impressed Hall and 2DogsGames were able to raise a million dollars to make what he called an empathy simulator, but Bowman warns that it sounds like a passion project. The problem is, it may not be the gaming community’s passion.
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“I suspect it’ll be fantastic in classrooms as teaching material. And I suspect they don’t want it to be that way. And that’s probably the conflict: If the audience sees it as an educational game or an interactive movie, they start to discount it as a gaming experience,” he says.
Raffael Boccamazzo, a psychologist who served as a mental health advisor on the game, disagrees. He believes the team incorporated mental health dynamics in a way he had not seen before. While other games have included mental health as part of the narrative, few, if any, have made it a factor in the characters’ performance, he says.
“The idea that you have to essentially manage the interpersonal and mental health needs of your squad in order for them to perform at optimal capacity is unique. I can’t think of any other game that’s attempted something like that,” Boccamazzo explains.
Boccamazzo, who is a clinical director of Take This, a mental health nonprofit serving the game industry, says it’s difficult to know what will appeal to people. If there were a set formula, we’d all be following it. But that would limit creativity.
“People are going to try new things all the time, and it’s going to be hit or miss.”