Dr Christina Fawcett on the Batman: Arkham series and incarceration of people with mental illness
15 January, 2020
The game Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) and its sequel, Batman: Arkham City (2011), both give the player thrilling experiences as the iconic superhero Batman. With both games placing the action within a supposed forensic psychiatric care setting, they portray villainisation, incarceration, and brutalisation of people with mental illness. These depictions of mental illness are clichéd and highly stigmatising, but there is more on these issues a player could appreciate through the games beyond what they are shown superficially. I was pleased to speak to Dr Christina Fawcett, a video game theorist, for a better understanding of the depth of messaging regarding mental illness within these games.
Fawcett’s academic background is in monster theory, where she dealt with cultural and moral elements of the monsters in Tolkien’s legendarium. She teaches courses in science fiction, fantasy, fairy tales, and horror at the University of Winnipeg. She described villainy as one of the more human forms of monstrosity, which led her academic interest to the Batman franchise, with its eclectic rogues’ gallery. With her colleague Steven Kohlm, Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Winnipeg, Fawcett analysed Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City through the framework of popular criminology (Fawcett, 2019). Fawcett was already a fan of the games, but she noted, “I was finding myself uncomfortable with the way the asylum space is set up and the way you are forced to physically engage with the inmates.”
Into the asylum
Arkham Asylum has been part of the Batman franchise since 1974, described as an institution for the “criminally insane” and housing a variety of Batman’s infamous foes. The game Batman: Arkham Asylum sees Batman enter the institution in order to confront his nemesis Joker, who has allowed himself to be detained in order to seize control of Arkham from within.
As part of Joker’s scheme, a fire at Blackgate Penitentiary leads to prisoners being transferred to the asylum, resulting in what Fawcett describes as “a collapse of penal institution and mental institution.” This collapse is further advanced in Batman: Arkham City, in which both Arkham Asylum and Blackgate Penitentiary are shut down, in favour of a single immense detention complex named Arkham City. “We have the carceral space becoming home to both individuals found guilty of a crime and individuals who are dubbed ‘criminally insane’,” said Fawcett. “That suggests an equivalence of treatment; that the patients aren’t really getting treated as patients; they’re just seen as prisoners. The game gets us to think about how the mental institution operates within the carceral system.”
Fawcett’s background in monster academia gives her a unique window to interpret the inhuman ways in which the patients of Arkham are depicted. She describes two layers of representation of mental illness within the first game. First are the supervillains. “They all get bio statements which highlight their mental illness and psychopathy,” she said. “Those are just naturalised traits; they’re just constantly present.”
Among the villain biographies, Joker is described as a “homicidal maniac”; Harley Quinn as a “homicidal psychotic”; Two-Face as a “schizoid criminal mastermind, obsessed with duality”; Professor Hugo Strange as “plagued by schizophrenic episodes”; and The Riddler as having an “obsessive-compulsive need for attention”. Fawcett explained why mental illness is so common to Batman’s rogues’ gallery: “The complicated psychology of Batman himself invites more of a psychological foil. As much as you can frame Batman as being this incredibly powerful human, he’s still human, and so we have him facing human opponents. And what’s the scariest kind of human opponent? Somebody who we can’t reason with. A complete lack of reason, sense, or logic is terrifying, and it’s something we’re not comfortable with. That then gets framed as mental illness.”
The second layer of mental illness representation exists in the unnamed patients of Arkham, broadly labeled ‘lunatics’. “The ’lunatics’ are sub-verbal,” Fawcett explained. “They make feral noises. There’s a lot of screaming, growling and hissing: entirely animal.” The ’lunatic’ characters thrash around in long straightjackets and try to chew on Batman. “So you have the supervillains who are intelligent and insane, and the purely insane who are just animalistically violent.” The ’lunatic’ characters are dated in design, wearing restrictive apparatus like wirecages and constrictive leather straps, evoking barbaric torture devices. “It is an amplification and sensationalisation of mental illness,” said Fawcett, “with all humanity stripped away.”
Joker frees the ‘lunatics’ from their cells, to pose a hindrance to Batman
The games have an exaggerated, stigmatising view of villainy’s rooting in mental illness, but they also offer little other reason for why criminal activity occurs, as though mental illness is the only explanation. “It doesn’t address circumstance, desperation and economic disparity,” said Fawcett. “All of those things just get erased. The drivers of crime; greed, or desperation, those things don’t come into play.”
Being action games, Batman must fight on his path to thwarting Joker’s plans, and this does mean fighting the residents of the institution. All mentally ill people within the game are framed as a threat, to justify your retaliation. “You don’t really get a choice in the matter,” said Fawcett. “The game makes that kind of violence mandatory.” In the first game, Batman fights both the Blackgate prisoners and Arkham ’lunatics’, though his brutality differs between the two groups. Defeating ‘lunatics’ requires Batman to use subduing actions, though still violent, such as slamming them to the ground. “It’s framed as you putting them down for their own good, to use that animal language,” said Fawcett.
Some players may try to engage less aggressively, however futile the attempt, pointing towards critical thought on the part of the player. “We are aware of our own individual identities outside of the protagonist,” Fawcett said. “As long as we’re aware of that separation, that my identity is not lost when I play this game, and who I am is still important, then, yes, the game is making you do this, but you can consider: narratively, why? Also emotionally or politically or socially, what is the game doing and why is it making me have that uncomfortable moment?”
Fawcett is interested in how this mandated violence makes players feel and how players engage with such framing. She also hopes that players remain questioning of their actions, even if they are forced: “You’re choosing to participate in the game space. These games can challenge us on what we’re willing to do, even if it’s only in a digital space.”
The player can discover aspects of Arkham’s history throughout the game. For example, they learn how the asylum’s founder, Amadeus Arkham, had hoped for the asylum to be a rehabilitative institution. However the first patient Amadeus treated immediately attacked Amadeus’s secretary upon discharge. “That gets highlighted as a warning that this is what happens when you try to cure people,” Fawcett said. “We have an attempt at cure being thwarted by the patient’s manipulation of the system. The system becomes retributive in response.”
The games portray Amadeus’s legacy as the need to enact violence against mental health patients as a means of controlling and subduing them. The asylum’s modern custodian, Warden Sharp, is the inheritor of this legacy. Sharp is documented as being openly abusive of Arkham patients. “He frames it as retributive; that they deserve it,” said Fawcett. “He’s not enacting any form of rehabilitation or treatment. It is absolutely abuse for the sake of abuse.”
By the second game, the asylum and prison are fully combined into a massive carceral institution, and Batman’s growing unease with the situation catches up with the player’s own discomfort. Even at this point, said Fawcett, there is some hypocrisy to Batman’s stance: “We see Batman showing frustration with the way the private guards are treating prisoners and then he goes and beats people just as violently.”
Bruce Wayne (Batman) is critical of Arkham City - but his concern is not for the patients
Batman, though traditionally described as a vigilante, is a firm part of the oppressive law enforcement system. Even as supposed civilian, he is allowed to take weapons into Arkham. He is a useful cog, carrying out the brutal acts the justice system openly cannot. How is the player expected to react to Batman’s brutality? Fawcett described that the games “allow a space of tremendous player discomfort with Batman’s vigilante actions.” However, the game is open to different readings: “The game offers the opportunity to think ‘wow I get to be Batman, this is awesome’ – and there’s also a simultaneous narrative of ‘should I really be punching these people?’ The narrative is one of tension between you and your protagonist.”
This tension is enhanced by the third-person perspective used in the games, where the player controls Batman but views him from the outside. “It gives us more of that filmic distance, that disassociation from the body,” said Fawcett. “Yes, we are the ones who pushed the button, but that looked aggressive. That creates a potential for tension.” In addition, the player can see Batman’s face when he enacts violence, and note the discordance between his emotions and their own. “You realize he’s totally fine with it. How can he be comfortable with that?”
The games paint a dilemma of rehabilitation versus punitive incarceration, where neither option works for the management of the mental health patients. Medical records the player finds throughout Arkham demonstrate the futility of mental health treatment for supervillains who have never shown recovery. Meanwhile, the justice system is so ineffective it requires the likes of Batman to support it. Fawcett recognizes an element of hopelessness to the game. She brings it back to the first appearance of Arkham Asylum within the comics, which was in the same year sociologist Robert Martinson published what would come to be known as the ‘Nothing Works’ report (Martinson, 1974). The report highlighted the shortcomings of prison rehabilitation programs at the time. Fawcett explained: “The report was taken up by conservative lawmakers as: ‘nothing we’re doing is helping, let’s forget rehabilitation, let’s warehouse people and let them suffer for their crimes.’” Martinson’s report had, in fact, called for improvements to rehabilitation. “But the report and its message got twisted into: ‘why are we bothering?’”
The Arkham games continue this nihilistic view. “We’re never given an optimistic solution of how to deal with carcerality,” said Fawcett, “or how to deal with the violent and mentally ill.” However, the games open a space to critique existing systems, or at least fictionalized, sensational versions of them. The problems of Arkham City reflect those of the real world: we really do have warehousing prisons, and we really do have people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders who end up in prison instead of in treatment.
Arkham is depicted in a manner that already presumes its failure as a space for rehabilitation. “By positioning it in Victorian buildings with old fashioned torture-style devices,” Fawcett said, “it makes all the treatment feel outdated and ineffective because it’s the brutality of the past.” There is no representation of modern psychiatric settings within the game. “We don’t get a counter to that. We very much see the dangers and threats of the system, in a way that justifies Batman’s violent interventions. It justifies the way he engages with the space as brutal. Because nothing else works… so you may as well send in a guy with a big bat cowl to punch people.”
Of all the game’s supervillians, Joker’s mental illness is perhaps the most overt in its depiction. Joker has been part of Batman history ever since the debut issue of Batman in 1940. Fawcett noted Joker was introduced to audiences “well before the idea of the serial killer was popularised.” Though initially a remorseless killer, Joker was soon developed into a prankster character, more interested in stealing jewels and spreading fear. While the original Joker was threatening, “there was nothing about his behavior that was highlighted as manic, or mentally abhorrent, other than the fact he likes his costuming and has his clown makeup."
Joker taunts Batman as he is escorted into Arkham Asylum, with a suggestive comment about Batman’s own mental health
In 1973, Joker returned to the comics as a serial killer driven by mental illness, along with the new concept of Joker being ‘criminally insane’. This evolution of the character took place on the backdrop of changing social theories of criminality, as Fawcett described: “The idea of the serial killer or the super-predator, arising in the 70’s and 80’s, described figures who are beyond logic. The justification for their crime was portrayed as something darker or more frightening, because it came from within their own mind and was something we could not understand so easily.”
Almost as the existence of Joker demands the existence of Batman, so too the existence of serial killers demanded the expansion of federal police powers in America. “The framing of crime in this way, I don’t think it was necessarily trying to pull psychology and psychiatry into the realm of the criminologist, so much as it was justifying extra-legal near-vigilante or brutal responses on the part of law enforcement. This is just after 'Nothing Works', and we started to see more focus on the serial killer and super-predator, which justified that these aren’t people we can treat with the normal kind of incarceration; we needed more extreme forms of control. These were literally the poster children for retribution within a penal system.”
As emerging social theories inspired the ‘psychopathic’ framing of Joker, media depictions of Joker in turn galvanised this framing within public consciousness. “When you have something as iconic as Batman," said Fawcett, "that feeds into other narratives and spaces and media - the show, the films, the games - the image keeps filtering through until it becomes the norm, and pretty soon, 'How do you deal with a problem like Joker?' Well, with vigilante apocalyptic violence. That’s the only form of justice you can find: brutal, physical retribution.”
We now have more of an understanding of mental illness and treatment. However, fictional psychopathic serial killers have persisted as a holdover from this prior era. "Once Joker took on that lens of psychopathy, for lack of a better term, he’s never going to drop that,” said Fawcett. “Particularly for the Batman world, Arkham is such a ripe space for interesting and dark narratives and examinations of psychological complexity. We’re never going to get away from that.”
Beneath the surface
While, superficially, these games easily could, and arguably should, be criticised for their portrayals of mental illness, the story does not end at surface impressions. “You can play it absolutely flat, and enjoy that you get to be Batman,” said Fawcett. “The game design presents the opportunity for a countervisual that the player can either engage with a simple relationship of player-to-Batman, or with a relationship of player-to-world. And if we start looking at the larger world, if we start looking at the other characters, the other perspectives, and we’re not simply being Batman, we have the opportunity to look beyond what he sees and consider the faults and the violence that is inherent in a carceral system that brutalises the mentally ill. And so, by having a space of potential discomfort, players are invited to think critically about how these systems work and what these systems do to people.”
At least, that is perhaps the ideal. It is possible that many players do play only on a flat reading, enjoying the experience and not paying mind to the difficult questions the games raise about justice and rehabilitation. We must also accept that some players may enjoy playing around with mental illness and the mentally unwell in a way that perpetuates stigmatisation, echoing the real asylum tourism that persisted well into the mid-nineteenth century. It may be the case that the creators of the games did not intend to explore these issues at all, and that deeper readings are solely bound to the interpretations of players who wish to seek that meaning from the material available to them.
But these games do hold tensions to them: between the role of player and the role of Batman; between the role of hero and role of law enforcement; between being a protector and being a brutaliser; between the perceived safety of incarceration and the horror of punitive justice; between the popular narrative of crime and the more complicated truth. The player may find discomfort in these tensions and a space to begin questioning themselves.
No tension seems more key to the games than what Fawcett describes as “contradictory carcerality”. Fawcett explained the term: “It is very much the same way that we trust in the carceral system as necessary, but we also have to be perpetually critical of the problems of carcerality and the problems of incarcerating individuals who need treatment instead of being locked up. We have to be perpetually aware of the contradiction of something that we think is necessary for the safety of society that is simultaneously a threat to individuals and people. So the game offers an ability to play within and be aware of that tension.”
The Arkham games are well celebrated, and raising their more disturbing content is not an argument that the games should be disregarded or avoided. Most art that attempts to represent and critique human society will fail to break free of the ideological prejudices of the time in which it is made. Great art is able to transcend such boundaries, but whether the Arkham games achieve this is open to debate. We can still engage with and enjoy these games, but it is important to play with a critical eye, locating the discomfort within the games, and challenging ourselves to find deeper meaning in the message. If the Arkham games can make us reflect on the issues of incarceration of people with mental illness, they play an important role.
Authored by Sachin Shah
Fawcett, C., & Kohm, S. (2019). Carceral violence at the intersection of madness and crime in Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. Crime, Media, Culture, 1741659019865298.
Martinson, R. (1974). What works?-Questions and answers about prison reform. The public interest, 35, 22.