game on

Guess what! You could be playing Super Mario or Pokemon Go at the Tokyo Olympics

The games are an opportunity for eSport to drive a new social movement.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s appearance as Super Mario in the closing ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games delighted audiences around the world. It also hinted at the exciting possibility that eSports – or video games, as they’re conventionally known – may become part of the programme at Tokyo 2020.

In fact, fantasy games have already become an Olympic reality: Rio 2016 was the first games where an eSport competition actually took place – though you wouldn’t have found it on the official programme.

The eGames showcase in British House, Rio was organised by Chester King, a businessman who recently established the British eSports Association, and the International eGames Group. This showcase competition featured gamers from eight countries – including the world number one EVO champion, Elliot “Ally” Carroza-Oyarce – who faced off in Super Smash Bros for an (unofficial) gold medal.

Growing appeal

It can be all too easy for sceptics to dismiss eSports; after all, they appear to lack the physical intensity of “proper sports”, and most of the games have a fantastical setting. But the gaming community has attracted the attention of the International Olympic Committee (which notably included skateboarding at the Tokyo 2020 games) as it re-thinks how to connect with younger audiences. And they’re not the only ones.

In 2013, the US approved athlete visas for eSports players. And earlier this year, West Ham United became the first soccer club in the UK to sign an eSport player – to represent the team at eSports tournaments, playing the popular computer game FIFA.

Meanwhile, the International eSport Federation edges ever closer to Olympic recognition. Even the oldest Olympic sponsor, Coca-Cola, has signed up as a global sponsor of eSports. The company now takes a leadership role in eSports by hosting a weekly YouTube show featuring the latest news from eSports events. This also signals a change in how sponsors operate around sports events, where television broadcasters are out, and product companies are in.

While the scene is set for eSport to find its way into the Olympics, it’s part of a much bigger picture. It is not even clear whether the eSport community wants to be a part of the Olympic Games, as Chester King has outlined:

Personally, I feel there would be major problems with eSports taking place during an Olympic Games. Firstly, which gaming title would you choose? There are so many. And which platform would you choose – PC, console or mobile? The vision of The eGames is to have representation from every country playing multi-title and multi-platform so logistically this could not happen at the same time as an Olympic Games as you would need all the indoor arenas just for gaming.

King sees the value of competitive video gaming extending far beyond an appearance at the Olympics. He is also keen to establish a difference between the professional eSports leagues (where you play for a team) and the Olympic ethos, which brings the best players in the world into an environment where there is no prize money; simply prestige and national pride.

When I interviewed him at Rio 2016, King – who is on something of a crusade to promote eSports – said : “Playing eSports, in moderation and part of a balanced life, has incredible benefits including life and cyber skills, but most importantly it helps with positive psychologically and your happiness.”

Gaming for social good

Whether or not you think they succeed, there’s no doubt that the modern Olympic Games seek to establish an ethos of social responsibility. Likewise, there’s something very compelling about King’s interest in developing gaming for social good: specifically, to get young people interested in game development and digital innovation.

The eSports world could be an excellent vehicle for such development. It could turn an entire generation of people who are lost to sports on to a different kind of physical activity. Indeed, the direction of travel is for computer gaming to become a more full-body experience. Virtual reality simulators and mobile health technologies are changing how we interact with games, as the running app Zombies, Run shows. Although gaming seems like a rather static activity now, it is fast becoming a physically and cognitively demanding activity.

There is an opportunity for eSport to drive a new social movement: eSports arenas could be cathedrals of digital innovation – not just spaces of competition and practice. And eSport athletes can become game developer role models for future generations, whose discipline and dexterity can inspire young people to stretch their digital skills even further.

Yet the world of eSports is already fragmenting, with the professional/amateur split widening, and many more competitions being developed by individual organisations, such as the recently launched World eSport Association. There’s a real risk that, unless this growth can be unified, gaming will lose its wider social mandate. This is why its alignment with the Olympic programme could be useful.

Early days

It is worth remembering that, compared with other Olympic events, eSports are still incredibly early on in their development. But already, eSports are fast becoming a major player in the sports economy.

With a new economic model underpinning it – which eschews television in favour of live streaming matches on Twitch – eSports’ approach resonates with the younger, more digitally-savvy generations. Indeed, the International Olympic Committee’s launch of the Olympic Channel and focus on livestream viewing figures rather than television viewing figures, demonstrates just how important this shift is.

In fact, whether or not eSports finally make it into the Olympic Games is not actually the most important outcome of their rise to global prominence. Rather, ensuring that they develop in a way that spawns new role models for young people and which nurtures this new, active sub-culture is the more crucial matter. Really, this is the most powerful reason to align eSport athletes with the virtues of Olympians, and such concerns are also what led to the revival of the modern Olympic Games in the first place.

With Tokyo hosting the next games, perhaps we can expect to see a version of Pokemon Go out there, encouraging spectators to be more physically active. This might even fit in better with the Olympic Games. But for now, Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog are the official games sponsors – so we can expect to see much more of them four years from now.

Andy Miah, Chair in Science Communication & Future Media, University of Salford.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.