Depression Quest Favorite 



Aug 11 2014



Earlier this month, an anonymous message was posted to the discussion-board Web site 4chan. In it, the author threatened to hurt the video-game developer Zoe Quinn: “Next time she shows up at a conference we … give her a crippling injury that’s never going to fully heal … a good solid injury to the knees. I’d say a brain damage, but we don’t want to make it so she ends up too retarded to fear us.”

For the past eighteen months, the twenty-seven-year-old Quinn has received a cavalcade of similar threats, which have created an ambient hum of menace in her life, albeit one that she has mostly been able to ignore. But at the end of August she was “doxed,” a slang term for document tracing, which is when a person’s personal details—home address, phone numbers, bank details, and, in some cases, social-security number—are made public on the Internet. Doxing carries with it a tacit invitation to harangue and harass the subject. After the developer was doxed, the prank calls, threatening e-mails, and abusive tweets intensified to such a degree that Quinn, fearing for her safety, chose to leave her home and sleep on friends’ sofas. She is now working with authorities to find the faceless attackers.

The reason Quinn was targeted varies, depending on whom you ask, but most explanations lead to Depression Quest, a free interactive fiction game released in 2013. To date, it has been played more than a million times. The game, created by Quinn, the writer Patrick Lindsey, and the musician Isaac Schankler, casts its player as a young adult suffering from depression. The story is told through snippets of text (which, combined, total forty thousand words), bookended with ostensibly straightforward decisions for the player. Will you work at your desk or retreat to bed? Will you attend the party or remain at home? The choices appear mundane, but the protagonist, slowed by depression’s fug, finds each one to be tremendously burdensome. For example, some options, such as choosing to “enthusiastically socialize” at a party, are grayed out, forcing the player’s hand. The hate mail began to arrive on “pretty much the same day” as the game’s release, Quinn told me. The harassment increased when, earlier this summer, the game launched on Steam, a global digital store for PC games. Many Steam users argued that a game with such a gloomy subject had no place being distributed on the marketplace. Incredulous and angry user reviews filled up Depression Quest’s listing page. “I can’t really call it a game since I don’t think the point is to entertain you,” says one. “I’m not even sure what to say about this thing. It’s just boring and is entirely all reading,” says another.

The game débuted on Steam on the day that the news of Robin Williams’s suicide broke, and some critics claimed that the timing of the release was an attempt to capitalize on Williams’s death—despite the fact that the game’s only source of revenue is donations. Ultimately, she decided to go ahead with the release, because, as she wrote in a blog post, “I can’t in good conscience hold back offering someone something that could help them start making real changes in their life for the sake of reducing the risk of offending people or hurting my own reputation.”

Quinn, who grew up in a small town in the Adirondack Mountains, has suffered from depression since she was a teen-ager. At the age of twelve, she attempted to commit suicide. “We couldn’t afford therapy, so I was sent to meet school-district officials who were less than understanding about teens with depression and suicide issues,” she told me. “I was diagnosed with depression at fourteen, but I couldn’t find any medication that did anything for me other than making things worse.” Video games became Quinn’s refuge when her father, a motorbike mechanic, was given a computer by one of his customers as payment. A particular favorite was Commander Keen, a game that features an eight-year-old boy who builds a spaceship from household objects and tours the galaxy as Earth’s defender.

After a breakup, at the age of twenty-four, Quinn moved to Canada. “My social anxiety was as bad as it had ever been, and now I was in a new country on my own,” she said. “I was trying to force myself to leave the house and actually interact with people in spite of it.” Then Quinn saw an advertisement for a six-week course on how to make a video game. “I figured that maybe it would be a good way to meet people with similar interests,” she said. Six weeks later, she completed her first game. “I felt like I’d found my calling,” she said.

Game-making provided Quinn with a community and introduced her to Lindsey, who also suffers from depression. Lindsey suggested that the pair attempt to communicate their experiences through a computer game. “Previous games that attempted to deal with depression or mental illness were too oblique and steeped in metaphor and symbolism to really get at the nasty heart of what living with these conditions can be like,” Lindsey told me. “It is more than ‘feeling sad.’ We wanted to communicate what it’s like to be in that headspace.”

For Quinn, who also suffers from A.D.H.D., a video game was an ideal way to create an experience that built an understanding between sufferers and non-sufferers. “Externalizing that into a game and asking people to take some time out to see what ‘rules’ other people have to live with, I think, is a powerful use of the medium,” she said.

Depression Quest eschews the usual characteristics of most video games: there is no victorious ending and, as the developers warn in the preamble text, the game “is not meant to be a fun or light-hearted experience.” It is, instead, one of a growing number of video games that hopes to broaden the medium’s subject matter with depictions of life’s darker aspects. That Dragon, Cancer, which will be released later this year, is an autobiographical game about living with a terminally ill child (David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, the director of “Call Me Kuchu,” are filming a documentary about the Green family’s journey while the game is in development). In Hush, you play a displaced Darfuri child trying to retrieve water while avoiding janjaweed militia patrols.

This group of games shares few similarities with Super Mario’s spatial-reasoning puzzles and Call of Duty’s shooting-gallery tests of reaction speed, typical attributes of video games that dominate the medium. Some of the hatred directed at Quinn has come from video-game enthusiasts who think that the darker themes are not suitable for video games, which they believe should be playful and primarily focussed on entertaining.

Others, especially those who have led the recent attacks, claim that the game has received an amount of coverage that is disproportionate to its quality. One criticism is that the game offers too simplistic a solution to depression—it leads the player to partly solve the issue through medication or therapy. But the game explicitly states that it is not trying to speak for all depression sufferers. “The topic is too big, there’s too many people who live with it, and too many moving pieces for anyone to do a definitive statement on what depression is like for everyone,” Quinn told me. “Depression Quest’s goal was to be a basic introduction to the concept and to get the conversation started.”

Still, some critics argue that the game tells too individual of a story, that its protagonist is over-privileged and, therefore, better equipped to deal with the illness than real-world sufferers. Quinn disagrees. “I deliberately created a protagonist who has a lot of support networks and resources that I don’t have,” she said. “We wanted to preëmpt the argument that someone is only depressed because they have a difficult life. Anyone can have depression. The illness doesn’t care how much you do or don’t have.”

The attacks on Quinn escalated when an ex-boyfriend posted a tirade on a blog and exposed an alleged relationship that he claimed she had with a journalist who wrote about the game. The journalist in question pointed out that he had not reviewed the game and had merely reported its existence. Still, some justified their attacks on the “manipulative” Quinn in the name of ethics.

In the past few weeks, a debate about journalistic ethics in video-game coverage has spilled onto social media. Tens of thousands of tweets were written, most of them accompanied by the hashtag #gamergate. Many Twitter users involved in the discussion called for more clarity and disclosure by writers about the relationships they have with independent creators. They want critics to abide by John Updike’s sound rule to never “accept for review a book you are … committed by friendship to like.” In Quinn’s case, the fact that she was the subject of the attacks rather than the friend who wrote about her game reveals the true nature of much of the criticism: a pretense to make further harassment of women in the industry permissible. (The debate dissipated after Quinn posted the chat logs of some 4chan users, revealing that the #gamergate hashtag had been coördinated with malicious intent.)

Not all of the responses to Quinn’s game have been so negative. “I receive many e-mails from players telling me they are thankful that someone out there understands,” she said. “Depression Quest’s tone is one of hope. Many players have told me they’ve tried to take steps in their life to get their illness under control. I tear up while reading my e-mail on subways a lot.” Some therapists have even used the game as an exercise to generate empathy between a sufferer and his or her family, Quinn said.

Though Quinn continues to feel exposed from the dox (she still has not returned home, and people e-mail her daily to say that depression is not a real illness, or, at least, not one that a woman can experience), she said that she feels sympathy for her attackers. “They’re clearly hurting,” Quinn wrote in an e-mail. “People don’t viciously attack anyone without having some deep-seeded loathing in themselves.”

Posted by drm380 on