British News media this week have covered the suicide of a 15 year old teen, after his father blamed the game Doki Doki Literature Club.
Ben Walmsley (15) had committed suicide, and his father Darren Walmsley believed the game was to blame. Here’s a bit from the father:
“Ben was growing up fast. It is hard for parents but this needs to be highlighted. There is no confirmation yet, but we believe that the game could be linked to Ben’s death. […] Characters suggest things and you decide what to do. It drags you in and they make it very real. […] Ben did not speak about it, but parents need to be aware of this game and other similar games. […] It is free to download but once you get into it, it will not leave you alone. The characters befriend and love you and give you tasks to do but if you do not do them, they turn nasty.”
The mother of another individual in Croatia (Rok Jakopović Potz – 12) spoke to The Sun, saying that she feels the game was responsible for her son’s suicide after his suicide.
“In the last month of his life he changed a little bit, he became darker inside. […] He did not have any interest in school, where he was one of the best pupils in the class. […] He started having problems with sleeping, he stopped eating… but there were no clear signs of what would happen.[…] There were many things happening with my son and Doki Doki is just one part of it, but I need the death of my son to have some meaning.[…] It needs to help other kids. As parents we need to speak out about this.”
An inquiry is underway to determine the true cause of Ben’s suicide. In the meantime, some of the British news media have been using clickbait alarmist style headlines.
The Sun ran with “KID KILLER: Inside twisted Doki Doki Literature Club game which parents say caused ‘suicide’ of their children – and it’s horrifyingly easy to get hold of”. The Mirror had the headline title “Don’t let your child play Doki Doki Literature Club before reading this”. The BBC has also covered the story, and their coverage can be found above via a third-party upload.
Despite this, the news articles usually do mention that the game starts up with the warning “This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.” This is in addition to online stores such as Steam displaying this in its key information, and categorize the game under “Horror.”
In an interview with BBC News, the interviewees (Laura Dale – Kotaku UK; Helen Grounds – Mother, Casual Gamer, fan of the game; Lorna Fraser – Samaritans) all encouraged that parents should monitor their children and be aware of what they are playing. Some even suggest the 13 and older age rating would be too young. Some recommended an older age rating such as 15+ or 18+, after questions and examples by the interviewer of how some parents may think the warnings mean it is only inappropriate for children under 13.
The game’s style has also been criticized as an attempt to trick and lure children into playing the game. Aside from the games many warnings and age-verification on Steam, this is not the first form of media to subvert how it appears. Cartoons haven’t been “just for kids” in the west for a long time, with shows like Family Guy, American Dad, and many if not all of the cartoons on Adult Swim not being appropriate for young children.
The anime art style itself has been an art-form not restricted to young children for a long time in Japan. This has been known in the west with anime films such as Akira, Grave of the Fireflies, Ghost in the Shell, Spirited Away, A Silent Voice and Your Name, and more having scenes or their entire film not being appropriate for younger children.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a parody and subversion of visual novel dating sims. The goal in these games is typically to choose various options (akin to a choose-your-own-adventure book) and romance one out of several of the game’s characters. This is why the game opens with a “cutesy” style- it is something typical of those games. The game then begins to “break the fourth wall” and give the illusion it is glitching and modifying itself, dropping it’s style so the parody and horror part of the game begins.
While avoiding spoilers, the summery of the game’s events is that dating two of the three date-able girls occurs with no abnormal events. However, as the story progresses when attempting to court one girl, she commits suicide by hanging. The character had shown signs of depression and self-harm through-out the game. After this the game gives the illusion it is glitching and breaking. The game “restarts” from the beginning as though that character had never existed.
This continues as other characters become more unhinged and antisocial while accompanied by graphics making it appear the game is malfunctioning. One character shows signs of self-harm, a stalker-like attitude, and also commits suicide. Some characters even begin to speak to the player character as if they were the actual player in front of the computer screen. This is a narrative trope called “breaking the fourth wall”, when events in a piece of fiction attempt to give the illusion of bleeding into reality.
This can be as simple as a character making a pop-culture reference that shouldn’t make any sense in their world, to a character speaking directly into the camera to the audience or viewer. Some movies would even use effects in theaters. 1974’s Earthquake had “sensurround”, which would shake the audience’s seats when the earthquakes hit the city in the film. Similar “4D” effects have been used in theme park shows, where the audience is sprayed with water or their seats jolt in time to events in a short movie. This can also happen unintentionally when the audience doesn’t know the limits of technology or truly believe what they are seeing is real. This applies to very old films such as The Great Train Robbery (1903) and L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895), where bandits shooting the “audience” and atrain heading toward the camera caused people to faint or dive out of their seats.
Other videogames have broken the fourth wall as part of their presentation. Undertale has characters reference events that players may have done when they played the game differently on a previous run, or comment on how many times the player has lost to them in a boss fight. Batman: Arkham Asylum, Eternal Darkness and Metal Gear Solid also had moments where the game pretended to malfunction, or characters were aware of being inside a video game.
In those cases the viewers or players usually knew everything was fake, being an act of technology, good presentation, and a little psychology. The audience still suspended their disbelief to enjoy it. Most sane people know they are watching actors or manipulating data with inputs to make a character perform actions, but they choose to go along with the deception to enjoy it. Breaking the fourth wall takes it to another level to further surprise and delight audiences.
In Doki Doki Literature Club, the game does this by adding and removing files to the game’s folder. However, it is likely these files do not affect how the game functions, as if players genuinely deleted important files the game would glitch and crash. The game can also gives the illusion of knowing the name of the player from the name of the user account on the PC (as user accounts are often the player’s first name).
Many UK news outlets covering this story have spread falsehoods and misunderstandings. For clarity:
- The game is not an “Online game”. It features no mechanics or features that allow it to connect to the internet or communicate with other players across the internet.
- There is no mechanic in which players input their mobile number and receive texts as though they were characters in the game. The Sun did admit this was the case. They said it was likely to be a separate mobile game with horror and fourth wall breaking elements, Mystic Messenger.
- In addition, the game does not assign “tasks” for the player. The player is given simple options to take them down different “paths” to different “events”. Players also select key-words in a poem-writing minigame. Depending on the words chosen, different girls will show more interest in the player.
- The horror game always “turns nasty” (I.e. show horror elements that can be scary and unsettling for young children and those who are easily disturbed) no matter what the player does once they begin a certain path in the story. The only way to prevent this would be to not go down that story path, and play much less of the game.
- One claim made is that the game is “easily accessible”. This is only true in cases where a child has access to their parent’s credit card, and can use Steam without oversight.
It is unknown where these statements have come from, but it is likely to be any combination of misunderstandings.
Ben’s school gave the following statement:
“This is a psychological horror game with suicide as a main feature. A concern has been expressed that the game may trigger suicidal thoughts in young people who may be emotionally vulnerable. […] Please monitor and check your child’s internet use regularly and be mindful of the time spent.”
Detective Inspector Jude Holmes, of Greater Manchester Police’s Public Protection Division, added:
“We believe this game is a risk to children and young people, especially those that are emotionally vulnerable and anyone with existing mental health concerns. […] It’s also really important to discuss with your children which games and apps are suitable, and ensure they understand why others aren’t appropriate to use.”
How do you feel about video games with clear disclaimers and warnings still being used as scapegoats? Sound off in the comments below!