What Happened to You: Playing After Trauma

"I don't go to that con anymore," she says.

"Oh. Why?"

She hesitates. I can see in the way her lips purse that she's weighing the odds of telling me something. She's deciding if I'll listen and believe her, or if I'm going to call her a liar and abuse her. It's a debate I've done myself, multiple times. "I was groped there."

"Jesus. I'm so sorry."

"Mhm." She goes quiet for a minute. "I talked to the con about it. They didn't do anything. They didn't remove him."

I stare, blankly, at this person who was hurt and abused. I am looking at her, looking down at the ground, the safe neutral area where she can't see my response. She doesn't want to see my pain on her behalf because this is about her, not me. I swallow. "Fuck 'em. I don't need to go that con. I'm so sorry that happened."

She hesitates again and finally looks up at me. "Are there policies, at your con? That matter?"

"I promise you they matter. I promise you matter."

This isn't an unfamiliar narrative. You can replace con with game, meetup, group, or organized play of any kind. They don't do that thing anymore because someone hurt them. Whether it's assault or harassment, it doesn't matter. Trauma has occurred. Enough trauma that people avoid certain things, but still consider this their hobby, and therefore somehow exist in this space where anything can hurt them, but the payoff is almost worth the risk.

Some of these people will turn their trauma into a fierce anger that they wear as a badge and use to smash those that harm others. Some of these people will turn that trauma into sorrow they pour into their game design that explores problematic content. Some of these people will wilt on the inside and pretend everything is fine. Some of these people will explore their trauma through game, engaging in content that is triggering deliberately, so they can unpack it in a more safe space than just holding it inside. And a lot of these people do all of these thing. I'm one of them.

In the wake of Me Too, besides all the irrelevant vows to believe and make a difference, most of which have fallen through in the week of outings and call outs, most of us know going back out into the world that our safety isn't anymore a priority than it was before Me Too. We've been hurt. We've bled. We've opened our wounds for you and you did nothing with them. You stared, mouth agape in horror, before you said "I see you. I see your struggle. I believe you." But your next breath was "We don't know the whole story."

What do you do when you need to intense self care but you also need to exist in an industry that undervalues you fundamentally as a person? You keep on keepin' on. That's the short and the long of it. But really, in a world where all we have is fellow traumatized people to take care of us, there has to be some ways we can help ourselves and help others without dying on the hills we march on alone. Is there a way to exist in this community after the unthinkable has happened? And how do we make them think about it?

The more people I come across who ask for specific things from me and the team at Breakout, the more I'm registering just how awful the community is beyond my experiences with it. It was gamers who hurt me every time. Every man who's directly assaulted or harassed me besides street harassment has been a gamer. I received less abuse and harassment when I did sex work. Consider that. I'm not saying it's the case across the board, I am saying I can easily see how hard one part of my life was compared to the other. If you're looking at your professional life and can see more sexism and pain in your hobby, maybe think about what that says about your hobby and the industry it stems from.

But we're not here to take hits at our industry. I want to talk about the enormous effort abused people must give in order to continue to exist in an industry that wants to ignore them and silence them. After trauma occurs in a space that should be safe, we're left shaken and a little broken. Or a lot broken. If you're in this position and you've never been here before, first, I'm sorry. And I believe you. I'm sorry our industry is treating you like a pariah and secondly that so many people are disappointing you. I see you.

Secondly, let's talk about what abuse survivors can do to continue existing in this space, if they even want to. Sadly, the onus to reenter the gaming space after being hurt is on the survivor. The community, as a whole, has decided that harassers and abusers are welcome in our spaces. So how can we survive this? How can we endure? Like I said, I haven't had it as bad as some people, but I have had it bad enough to know how a gaming space can feel unsafe and how I have managed to navigate it as well as help others navigate it.

The most important thing I've found in trying to continue gaming after trauma is to find your people. In most of the communities I've been in, there are a group of people taking care of each other. They're the ones doing check ins, holding space, and being there for each other when a man demands to see their nerd girl card. They're the ones, in an unsafe con, playing games together, often, or avoiding certain areas. They're the ones you need to get into a game or four with and get to know. It's not easy finding your people, but find them. Join their online communities, reach out to women and trans and enby folks you see and, when you're ready, tell them you feel unsafe.

It's not their job to make you feel safe, but odds are they will know what you mean. By the looks of the Me Too meme, at least we know we're not alone. Which means there are a lot of us looking for our people. For me, that's been forging my own community and connecting with local people. It also means I've connected with people online and provided that safe space back. I've met some great people who are in the community who offer those spaces and I've mirrored their behaviour to others, thus making a safe space for others with myself.

People in the industry, meaning the women and minority designers you buy the books of, will often know of safe communities like the Cred Bureau to join and be apart of who have made it their mission to make people feel like other have their back. There are safer spaces in the community. Once you're able, connect with these people either at a con or via social media and ask them for help. Ask them for people to talk to and people to connect to and they'll have your back. These people will become a life line as you go forward struggling with anxiety every con that comes around. They will be the ones you're texting when a guy in a game gets gross. They'll be impossible not to love when they show you all the love during your struggle and you'll know they've got you.

Find these people and cultivate your space with them in it. The space you'll start to inhabit will be one where you'll have people at your fingertips who love you but may not be physically present. In these cases, having your own space will be integral. For your local community, this will mean having a place you like to go game at but also feels safe, like a coffee shop or a local university. I have a coffee shop beside my gaming space I know I can go, grab a coffee, and hang out in if I need a few minutes break or if something bad in game comes up and I need to bail.

At conventions, I have a hotel room and I try to make sure that hotel room is the safest space. But sometimes you can't afford a hotel or you're bunking with people you don't know that well. In those rare cases, I always make sure I have music on my phone to drown out the world, a charger, and my headphones. I will walk out of a space and find somewhere I can plug into my phone and just be in my head for awhile. I'll look at facebook, I'll read some blog posts, I'll listen to a podcast. Whatever it is, I'll find a way to focus on external stimuli. This is my version of a safe space at a con.

The hyper-vigilance that comes after your space has been violated isn't one there are many great solutions to. You get anxious before, during, and after a game. You get anxious when you're on social media. You get anxious when you're around people who know your assailant. You get anxious. A lot. For me, the solution was finding ways to deal with anxiety, either by being with my people or by seeing my doctor to help with that anxiety and learning how to cope with it. No one can tackle your anxiety but you, and recognizing that can be a great way to help you take ownership of it and do your best to learn skills to cope with it.

Learn to breathe in a game. Use your phone to check out if you want to stay at the table but remain present. I knit, when I'm anxious, which gives me something to focus on in the game instead of everyone else if I need to tap out for a bit. Use the open door policy and go for a walk if things get a little whelming. Don't feel stuck anywhere. You are not obligated to stay in a game. If something goes south, tell them you're not feeling well and tap out. There should always be an x-card present in your games if things get rough, but sometimes we don't feel comfortable enough to use them. That doesn't mean endure the session. Just leave. It's not worth your health to suffer anyone else's douchiness.

For awhile, you may not want to deeply engage a character. That's fine. You do you during game to get yourself to a point where you begin to feel safe again. If you want to explore trauma in a game, because it's a safer place to unpack, then find a safe group of people to do that with who are willing to decompress after a game and do some check ins with you and the rest of the table. Carefully choose what you want to explore at a table, and be sure you can tap out and quit if it gets too much. Test this once in another game with those people before you dive in. Try tapping out and see what they do. If they respond poorly, they are not your people and they are not safe to explore hard content with.

If you are ready to start exploring traumatic content, or feel like you want to, then carefully find a game that allows you to do that. Be up front with your players on what you're looking for and what you're hoping to explore. I can't quite put into words why I explore traumatic content for the traumas I've experienced, other than it lets me explore those feelings and responses in a safe way. It also allows me to look at it from different angles and examen it without it being directly about me. I do this with trusted friends and people I know have my back in case I break down. I ensure there's decompression time and moments where I can ask for a break if needed.

These are my people, obviously, that I'm doing this with and I provide this space for them in return. Constant check ins are important as are breaks. I try not to let people be too disruptive to these moments and I try to stay present as much as possible. I'll doodle or draw between scenes to keep listening and unpack what I'm feeling a little. I'll even write, sometimes just a few keywords or a couple sentences of what my thoughts are or my character's thoughts. Just things to keep me present so that I don't fade out without meaning to. If I do fade out, I ask for a break, so I can get a drink, go to the bathroom, and come back refreshed. It's also okay to get into this play and realize you're not ready. It's okay to walk away.

If you hit a point where you want to fight back in a different way than than surviving, find safer spaces and volunteer with them. Help make the space safe for other people who may end up harassed or abused in the community. Speak out, whether through your own name or anonymously. Don't back down. Don't let others steal your truth from you. Demand the community begin being held accountable and tell people who's abusive in the community. It's an uphill battle, an upriver swim, and it doesn't seem to be working too well, but it's what we got. I can't tell you to join problematic groups and make them better, because that's a whole new level of abuse to open yourself up to.

But if you're willing and able, be the kind of person you wish you had in your life when your trauma happened. Be someone else's person, while maintaining your own healthy boundaries and self care. Form groups of people like you and protect each other. Have each other's backs. Run your own events. Play games together at cons. Create a supportive, loving environment. And when you witness trauma happen to someone else, be there for them in whatever capacity you can.

Boundaries are important. Self care is vital. If your trauma means you are struggling to do daily activities you need to live, like eating, getting out of bed, sleeping, or practicing hygiene, it's important to get help if you are able to. No amount of self care is better than seeing a professional, again, if you are able. If not, self care, like eating food, showering, going for a walk around the block, doing an activity you enjoy, looking at pictures of cute animals, or reaching out to say hi to someone can help push you through a difficult moment. Know your limits though, and you'll figure those out, sadly, as you get back into gaming after being hurt.

Gaming after being hurt in your community is such a minefield of potential pain. Whatever pace you set, it's a good one. Don't let people rush you or tell you that you're doing it wrong. You know you, more than anyone else, and it's important you listen to how you're feeling. I'm not going to tell you how to respond in the time of, because, well, the support systems just aren't there in most spaces. I wish I could tell you to trust your community and organizers to do the right thing thing, but I can't. And until our communities do a lot more work to be safe, my answer will always be: do what you feel you can and that you feel is safe.

Gaming after trauma has happened isn't easy. It steals what few spoons you have left. But there are pockets of wonder in the community and they are worth finding and knowing. We, as a community, owe it to our survivors to make our spaces safer so that I don't need to write about gaming after trauma. I can tell you, first hand, it's hard. It's awful. Walking into a space and seeing someone who's hurt you, who has stalked you or abused you, and to see them being accepted like what they did was okay... it'll never leave me. What has happened to me will never leave me.

I chose to take the path of fighting back. But I've done it all. I've left the community. I've come back. I've organized. I've avoided playing. I've over-played. I've explored hard content. I've avoided hard content like the plague. I've lashed out. I've held it in. I've cried. I've exploded. I've silenced myself. I've gone through a strange, horrible journey with my trauma. The only thing I've learned is that it changes with time, as I do, and my perception of it evolves to understand myself, now different because of what someone else has done to me, and to know that person better.

It isn't fair. We've changed because people hurt us. We'll never be the same. And learning to be that new person is brutal. Learning who that person is in gaming, a hobby and sometimes profession that we love, is even harder. How do you keep reentering the space that hurt you? The answer is always because there are no safe spaces. There are just spaces that are slightly safer. This is us. Walking into your space. After you've hurt us by doing nothing. This is us, victims and survivors, still rolling dice.

We're still here. We're still gaming. We're still asking for better.

We are being vulnerable. And we are fucking fierce.