There is no pleasant way to talk about what we’re going to talk about today, but it is an important conversation that, per usual, isn’t getting talk about the right way on either side of the debate. We’re going to attempt that here, but that includes a very frank discussion about suicide and self-harm. If that concerns you, then feel free to skip to the summary at the end of the article.
Yes, I’ve included a trigger warning. Consider yourself warned.
Last week, a fifteen-year-old United Kingdom native named Ben Walmsley committed suicide. While we do not have the coroner’s report, based on the statement from Ben’s parents and the fact that the coroner notified councils and schools in the area in the area about it, we can theorize something about the scene of Ben’s death was inspired by the visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club. There is simply nothing else to suggest any other connection to the game and the incident. Per usual, everyone has gone to the mattresses: either defending or slamming DDLC for its content. Other criticisms have gone towards the game being free with minimal warnings about its content and it potentially glorifying self-harm and suicide.
So, let’s touch on DDLC itself first. I reviewed the game months ago and I can safely say the game doesn’t promote or glorify suicide and self-harm. There is a lot of surreal imagery that is not suitable for certain people including children and people with mental trauma or other psychological issues. While the game does include content tags and a warning before you start the game, the narrative hook of the entire experience requires the audience to essentially ignore all of that and buy in (or pretend) that the game is just a typical, high school dating simulator. That doesn’t excuse anyone who was warned about playing the game and was shaken or disturbed by the content. It’s simply an acceptance of the reality that the game’s premise makes its previous content warnings pro forma.
If it seems like I’m making DDLC sound shallow…that’s because it is shallow. It’s also why a lot of the conversation around it by British media and government officials doesn’t ring completely true with me. Again, I agree there are some things shown that certain people shouldn’t see. However, at the same time, that content is there because that’s all DDLC has going for it. Its mechanics are far more limited than has been reported, leaving the images of suicides as the only thing to really affect Ben Walmsley. There is no deeper context of the imagery, so ipso facto there is no glorification or promotion of said imagery. The reality, though, is that much really isn’t needed when it comes to mental illness and suicide and that’s what is lost here in the larger debate about the game.
Because the reality is that yes, even with Team Salvato not directly pushing a suicidal message in the game and not being nearly what it has been described as in British media, DDLC could still have influenced Ben Walmsley’s suicide.
Now, let’s be clear here. For all the reasons stated above, I am not saying Team Salvato is liable, criminally or civilly, for Ben Walmsley’s death. However, the unfortunate truth of the matter is that over the years, every form of media has been an inspiration for someone committing acts of violence to themselves or others. While the person committing the act holds full and final responsibility, it is a bad joke to ignore the cost of mass media and its influence in our daily lives.
And to those of you about to argue that mass media doesn’t affect our daily lives…seriously, you’re reading this on a twenty-four-hour mass media stream called the Internet that you have been convinced you cannot live your life without. I don’t have to even go to a specific case. The fact that you’re reading this proves the point.
Mass media influences both the good and bad in human nature and video games are a major tentpole of Western mass media. We cannot and should not expect one side of the coin without the other. And as visual novels grow as a viable gaming market, that will ring true for us as well. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news on this one, but if you’re a visual novel developer, your work may feed into some dark part of a person’s mind. They may use your work as justification for their actions: whether it be to themselves or others. Especially if you do murder mysteries or delve into anything remotely dark, that possibility is only going to get higher.
Unfortunately, the news gets worse as there is nothing you can do about it. All the warnings and precautions cannot fully consider how a person consumes your work and what it could lead to in the future. All you can do is put your work out and hope for the best, while keeping in mind both the good and bad in this world. What you CANNOT do (which, of course, means a lot of gamers and games media are doing it) is to pretend that the dark side of life doesn’t exist at all or that games are mutually excluded from the consequences of being mass media. That’s childish and we don’t suffer children here.
So, where does that leave us? As boring as it is, it leaves us with the truth. DDLC probably did play a role in Ben Walmsley’s death, but ultimately, he was the one who chose to end his own life. ‘Why’ is a question that the authorities will have to try to figure out and I am sure it isn’t nearly as simple as the game ‘manipulating’ him to do it. While he sounds like he was a pleasant young man, something clearly went wrong and went wrong quickly before his parents or school authorities could realize the problem. I’m praying for him and his family and I hope you do as well.
As far as what it means for games, all this does is make DDLC and visuals novels the same as every other media entity in existence. We can acknowledge the role media has in feeding both the good and bad in our lives. However, ultimately it is up to the consumer, not any third party (including the parents and the developers) on how that individual will consume what they see/read/play. Trying to place blame anywhere else infantilizes the video games industry as well as ignore the responsibility we have in addressing with mental illness whenever a case pops up. We must acknowledge that reality.
Over the past few days, I have watched both sides debate the issue and between the misinformation on one side and the callousness on the other, its hard not to see anything changing in the aftermath of Ben Walmsley’s death from either the side of the gaming consumer or the media looking from the outside in. That puts more responsibility on those of us who know better to be the adults in the room and stand in the gap with both empathy and information. That will include developers of VNs. It’s what is need right now and the best way to ensure a more knowledgeable public at least when it comes to visual novels. We’ll let the rest of gaming help themselves, but as this market grows we all have a role to play during the good times and the bad ones.
This story has been covered by nearly all of the major news sources in the UK, so you can see them all with a decent search. I will highlight a discussion segment on the BBC on it that you can watch here. If nothing else, it shows you exactly what you’re walking into on this subject.