Fetishization of Insanity

Recently I was playing Borderlands 2 and something struck me. Perhaps it’s because I’m not enjoying the game as much as I thought it would. But it really started to bug me out that most of the characters in the game are insane. The enemies you fight are psychotic. They laugh, scream, run around wildly and they are excessively aggressive. I mean, some of them are actually called “Psychos”. But also many of the “good” characters are insane as well. I find Tiny Tina’s lines hilarious as surely most other players do. But she is also a 13-year-old turned psychotic bomber/torturer because her parents were murdered. I find it quite baffling that the game takes it for granted that I find it cool to support her in her deranged murder plans. It’s not cool at all. If anything, I want to find a safe place for her so she can deal with her loss in a meaningful and not self-destructive manner.

Tiny Tina

When exactly did this become cool and endearing?

Of course, the coolness of insanity is not something Borderlands invented. The “not normal” has been glamorized in pop culture for quite some time now. From the top of my head, characters like the Joker (and to some extent Batman himself) really helped to make insanity into an acceptable way to make appealing characters. They are extravagant but damaged and therefore exciting and lovable.

Looking at the bigger picture, insanity in general seems more like an easy way out for writers than actual depiction of an illness. Need a memorable, extroverted character? Let’s turn up that dial and say they are insane! The murder mystery doesn’t make sense because nobody has a good motif? That’s because a madman has done it! The plot of the evil guy is too convoluted and doesn’t make any sense? Well, that’s because he’s insane! It’s the “insane button” – an easy excuse for poor writing.

It took an excessive exploitation of that cliché like in Borderlands 2 to drive the idea home for me how dishonest and ignorant this method is. Recently, a family member very close to me passed away. He was struggling with psychiatric disorders for the last 20 years or so. I witnessed the kind of impact this had on his personality and his everyday life. Let me tell you, it’s not at all as depicted in pop culture. And there is nothing cool about it.


Joker, you’re so cray!

First of all, there are a lot of different psychiatric disorders. One could say that every patient is in some way unique. In treatment, a lot of time is invested in properly understanding the individual’s particular disposition. Most disorders are also very unstable. Patients may go through various episodes with vastly different, sometimes even polar opposite symptoms. Contrary to that, pop culture likes to focus solely on Mania. You know, because it’s the fun brand of insanity. Unlike Catatonia or Depression. Pop culture insanity is fairly stable too. The Joker’s Mania is so stable and reliable, I wonder if you could call it insanity at all. Seems almost like a character trait to me.

A lot of stories also center around characters overcoming their psychiatric disorders. Batman is often depicted having some sort of internal conflict about the death of his parents. Quite often, the Scarecrow is somehow involved. He always eventually defeats his fears and becomes normal again. In reality, it’s never that simple. You don’t heal so much from a psychiatric disorder, you learn to live with it. You need to accommodate your life for it. And it’s not just something the patient does, it’s also a challenge for their family and everybody around them. It’s a painful process of adjustment and learning for everybody. It requires a lot of understanding and patience. Of course there are drugs too. Sometimes they can help a lot. But they usually replace one psychotic disorder with another, more manageable one. This was one of the reasons why I have neither a happy ending nor a complete resolution in TRAUMA. Having a way out would betray the very idea of a trauma.

Finally, perhaps the most painful realization about insanity for me was that it’s always very close and personal. The delusions of patients are never completely irrational. They are much more like thoughts and observations you know you had yourself sometimes, but you ignored them. But they obsess about that weird coincidence that happened to them the other day. They feel down just like you did once only they never get over it. They get worse and worse. And the illness often shows the most not in the things they do, but in the things they say. They ask you for favors and you aren’t sure if it’s the illness speaking or if they really need your help with that thing. Or the mood strikes them and they turn against you and insult you. And you don’t know if it is the illness speaking of it is really something they feel. But that kind of thinking turns into a weird paranoia in itself. You start to second-guessing every word they say. The disorder starts defining every interaction you have with them.

I’m not saying that psychiatric disorders shouldn’t be portrayed in pop culture. As you can tell, there is a tremendous potential for incredibly powerful stories in there. But I do believe that there is a certain obligation for writers to be more careful with the way we use insanity in our stories. It’s not a topic that should be treated lightly. Using it as a flimsy excuse to make characters to CRAAAZY things is bad writing. If you are a writer, stop for a second before you mash that “insanity” button. Do some research and think about what kind of disorder you want to talk about. Think how that disorder may change throughout a story. Think how the character and the people close to them attempt to deal the disorder. Think how it affects others. Think how how it speaks to something the audience recognizes in themselves. Most importantly, ask yourself if you really are interested in the psychiatric disorder or if you are just trying to cover up shitty writing and lack of ideas. And keep in mind that there is nothing endearing and cool about insanity. Insane people are not fun. Quite often, they are very sad, confused, lonely and desperately helpless people.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

4 responses to “Fetishization of Insanity”

  1. MisterT

    So true… This reminds me of those many movies in which the twist is that someone is insane. The audience seem to like such surprising twist but I prefer any conventional contructed ending to that kind of lazy writing. This includes also fanatics – which seem to come into fashion after 9-11 and pretty much work the same way as the classic hollywood lunatic.

    Six Feet Under has a bipolar character for some episodes which was portrayed pretty accurately. United States Of Tara is way exaggerated for artistic purposes as a way uses this to condense the situation to make it accessable via tv. Other than that I have hardly seen any disorders used as plot devices more than just taking some kinky behavior nuggets and throwing it into the mix.

    Sometimes I wonder whether writers live in some parallel universe never to get in contact to real disorders or whether they have just depressions themselves and therefore avoid getting anywhere where it could hurt. Or maybe refusing to get into the dark places of their creative minds to wonder what other reasons there could be for people turning “evil” than insanity or fanatism.

  2. Dan Stout

    Great points, Krystian.

    I think that mental illness is often used as a short hand to show that someone is an “other”. This many be a superficial Tiny Tina-like character, or a much more thorough examination of the illness and its effects (like the mentally ill Robin Williams in The Fisher King).

    Like most things, how much depth is to found is a direct result of how hard the writer is willing to work at bringing that character to life.

    Thanks for the post– it got me thinking about the topic enough that I wrote about it on my own blog as well.

  3. Tim

    I’m not sure, but the fetishization of insanity may has something to do with the upcoming/rising of the mad scientist-character.

  4. Rhue

    The only game I can think of that’s ever handled an illness well is Alan Wake. Throughout the narrative you get a feel for the main character’s severe depression and the ways it’s affected his life and the lives of his loved ones. Through flashbacks we get glimpses of him at his best and at his worst, and we see how much stress and suffering his wife has gone through in trying to take care of him and get him to agree to psychiatric help.

    Halfway through the game we’re confronted with the possibility that most of the game is a schizophrenic escape fantasy. In an astoundingly fantastic piece of gameplay and story synchronicity, when the fantastical setting starts to seep back into the story, the player is as relieved to step into the action as Wake is to see justification that he really isn’t crazy. (Or is he?) The “save the girl from the darkness” fantasy is so much easier to cope with, for both the player and the character, than coping with a debilitating mental illness and a ruined career and relationship. You get an inkling of how easy it would be to get lost in that kind of elaborate fantasy while also getting a feel for the kind of damage something like that can cause for one’s friends and family.

    I can’t think of a AAA game that’s dealt with a mental illness with anywhere near as much care and subtlety.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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