DePaul video games reflect social struggles

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Doris Rusch fosters empathy and understanding through a surprising medium: video games.

"We can make them about things that are as profoundly moving as literature and movies are," said Rusch.

As a game designer and associate professor at DePaul University, she challenges students to leverage that power in the Deep Games Laboratory, where she serves as creative director overseeing the creation of video games that simulate an individual's specific daily struggle.

"To get people to ease into a very difficult topic, we need to sugar coat. We need the metaphor, the magic door that lures them in to a very strange and foreign world. And then bit by bit the metaphor gets revealed," explained Rusch of the lab's strategy.

One game, called "Into Darkness," symbolizes obsessive compulsive disorder. The game is a maze where each time you step over a dirty puddle, darkness closes in until you perform the ritual of walking in circles, which parallels intense cleaning. Rusch demonstrated the game, pointing out that "as long as you engage in that behavior there's also no way out."

But when a player accepts the imperfection and stops following through with the cleaning, the maze sets you free.

Another game, "Perfection," uses weeds and slugs in a garden to simulate an eating disorder. If you don't feed the garden water, the weeds wither away- but the beautiful plant does too, losing its healthful look.

"They make one point and they can really help conversation and dialogue and increasing empathy and I think that's totally worth doing," said Rusch of her projects.

With each game, the designers focus on a single person, finding a way to share that struggle. But Rusch said the games can impact many more.

"I get emails from Singapore, from Thailand from south America saying 'I played your game on depression and it was the first time that I could actually sit down with my mom and have her play it and then talk to her about how I feel,'" she explained.

Perhaps the deeper games reach into a virtual world, the more understanding we can have in ours.

You can explore the Deep Games Laboratory projects here.
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