Schizo-phrenzy's Sour Humor

Not everyone thinks Adult Swim’s newest online videogame is all about fun.

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Mar. 10, 2009

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In the Swim: You can tell this guy has schizophrenia because his eyes are as big as dinner plates.

I remember when the first arcade videogame touched down in Center City, around 1979. It landed at 18th and Spruce at Day’s Deli, a diner/convenience store. The game was near the cash register so the cashier could chastise us if we shook the machine (which didn’t work the way it did with pinball) or cheat by feeding it Canadian pennies. A year later, its novelty was gone: Videogame parlors crowded Chestnut Street—with everything from Asteroids and Space Invaders to Galaga and Ye Olde Pinballe in the back.

Those were days, I’ve been told, that videogame aficionados think of as a golden age, and it was the last time I could call myself an experienced gamer. Recently, though, I tried Adult Swim’s newest online game, Schizo-phrenzy, on the suggestion of Aaron Fisher, a reader of my blog. He thought the game was perfect for Funny or Offensive?, in which I ask readers if something is comical or just plain rude.

Let’s get you in the mood:

Example A: A few years ago, The Onion published an article headlined “GOD DIAGNOSED WITH BIPOLAR DISORDER.” It began: “In a diagnosis that helps explain the confusing and contradictory aspects of the cosmos, ... God, creator of the universe and longtime deity to billions of followers, was found Monday to suffer from bipolar disorder.”

Funny, right?

Example B: In 2002, there was a fire at New Jersey’s Trenton Psychiatric Hospital and The Trentonian ran a headline that read: “ROASTED NUTS.”

Oh, boy. Offensive.

You could debate either one, and the same can be said for Schizo-phrenzy.

The premise of the game is that the protagonist, a private eye with schizophrenia, has paranoid fantasies about the mayor of the town, who’s pictured as a looming clownlike face. The P.I. fights multicolored gremlin-y hallucinations that come from all sides. The score is kept in terms of his “sanity,” which is measured, in part, by how many blue pills he takes. The less sanity, the more frequent the hallucinations, which also affect the players—only instead of cartoon gremlins, their hallucinations are gruesome photographs that flash, strobe-like, on the screen. Players also hear auditory hallucinations while they navigate Schizo-phrenzy’s landscape.

The game’s platform isn’t especially sophisticated; I’d put it at the level of Donkey Kong, circa 1982. But is it offensive?

I asked Kristin Bell, a popular blogger with more than 1,000 YouTube subscribers, to play the game. Having suffered with schizophrenia since she was 15, the 35-year-old talks frankly about her experience in her videos, and she does so with a great sense of humor.

“Part of how I’ve dealt with my mental illness is to joke about how ‘crazy’ I am and to try to laugh about something that is seriously devastating,” she says. “I’m well medicated, so sometimes I even forget that I’m so weird. And I try to accept that probably 98 percent of the world knows little to nothing about what it’s like to have schizophrenia.”

At first, Bell enjoyed the game. “I thought, ‘Well, at least it’s showing how irritating and ever-present the hallucinations can be,” she says. But the more she played, the less she liked it. “This game is operating within the context of a culture that doesn’t understand mental illness,” she says. “Do we really need another way to make fun of ‘the crazies?’”

Joel Gurin, board member and acting president of NARSAD, formerly known as the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, says no.

“I think when you’re talking about humor about serious subjects,” he says, “you always have to ask whether it’s a subject that’s well understood so people can step back and laugh a little—so it’s harmless— or whether it’s something that’s so poorly understood that humor can actually be misleading and destructive.”

In the case of Schizo-phrenzy, Gurin thinks it’s the latter. “[Schizophrenia] is a very serious challenge,” he says. “And it’s not on the level of seeing some strange bug that you can jump on and make disappear.”

Gurin and Bell both wonder how the game would be received it if lampooned sufferers of other kinds of serious illness.

“Maybe when I see more cancer-sure-is-hilarious videogames, I’ll change my outlook,” Bell says.

Cartoon Network/Adult Swim Digital’s public relations department was happy to answer questions about the game, though they preferred to attribute the comments to an unnamed “Adult Swim Games spokesperson.”

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1. Awful lot of wahhhhh said... on Oct 12, 2013 at 02:02PM

“It's just a game, cry some more. Miss Bell sounds like one of those uppity people who want sympathy and pity and LaceFX can cry some more and get off her soap box. No one cares.”

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