Michael Thomsen describes the objective of Ether One, a game that recreates the experience of dementia for the player: “Your job is to dive into the mind of Jean Thompson, a sixty-nine-year-old woman diagnosed with dementia, and retrieve a series of lost memories.” Players are encouraged to “collect” memories, represented by tchotchkes and mementos that can only be carried one at a time:
As a player, you’re never sure what’s important and what isn’t, so the system encourages you to take everything. This hoarding is repaid with periodic puzzles, such as a door with a numeric lock whose code can be found on the bottom of a previously collected mug. As the game progresses, these puzzles increase in complexity, as does the array of random objects filling the shelves. The collection gradually overwhelms the player’s ability to remember just where all of these things came from and why they seemed important enough to retrieve. Why did I bring this plate all the way back here? Whose hat is this supposed to be again? It’s a tidy simulation of the cognitive degradation of dementia.
Thomsen goes on to ponder the moral implications of games designed to simulate mental illness:
If a game is going to be a game, in the sense of a progressive series of challenges leading to a definite end state, it can’t represent dementia or Alzheimer’s with anything other than a self-conscious artifice. We’re used to suspending some disbelief to enjoy shooting games, but it feels like bad faith to say that a disease should be the basis of a similar kind of entertainment. Our desire to entertain ourselves within systems that make triviality and tragedy indistinguishable says more about us than the depicted subjects. If violent war games are driven by delusional power fantasies, then empathy games are driven by a parallel delusion about how caring we are in reality.