What You're Made Of: Using Gaming To Explore Your Broken Self

How much of yourself do you toss onto the table? 
My answer: All of it.

My character's name is Robin. Robin had an abusive partner who socially manipulated her. Robin felt betrayed and broken afterwards, especially when that abusive partner hurt someone she loved. Robin has trust issues, and tends to be easily socially manipulated because of her inherent sense of low self worth. She wants to have hope, but finds at every turn it's tossed in her face.

My character's name is Aislinn. She's the daughter of a man who has an alcoholism problem and beats her. Her mother died a year ago. Aislinn is in high school and is mildly obsessed with dead things and hanging out in graveyards. She feels socially isolated because of what happened to her family, and doesn't feel like reaching out, because who could understand?

My character's name is Oz. He's a rocket launcher toting badass who wants to bring hope to the world. He doesn't know how to do that. He doesn't know how to spread a message or even what message he's trying to spread. But he wants to protect his friends and change things. He wants things to be better. So he blows things up instead, because change is better.

My character's name is Taser. She's a drug addict with some rage problems. She keeps staying high so that she can just function in the world, because so much bad stuff has happened, she doesn't know how to cope without the drugs. They're just the way she is now, it's been so long. She doesn't see it as a problem. She sees it as survival.

My character's name is Seodhna. She's an energy healer who has a stalker named Cliff. Cliff doesn't take no for an answer, he sends her creepy gifts without asking and keeps inviting himself to things. He'll do favours for her in exchange for going out with her, even though she doesn't want to. He won't listen when she says no. 

Who is your character? What do they say about you? What do these people say about me? Have I had an abusive partner? Have I been hopeless? Did I have an abusive father? Have I been a drug addict? Have I been stalked?

The answer to the questions about me are all yes. So why then, in a hobby about fantasy fulfillment, am I playing characters with real to life issues not so dissimilar to my own? It's common for gamers to have troubled lives and troubled pasts. We come from varying walks of life, each with our own privileges and our own problems. Some people come to the table to be a bad ass paladin and smite evil. Me? I come to the table to evoke emotionally cathartic experiences, and at the same time, dive in a little to things that hurt.

They're not things that just hurt because of the content. They aren't the moments where I'm sad because another gay couple have been brutally murdered in a television show. They're moments that resonate in my mind because it's a personal struggle I've dealt with. I play characters with an intention to explore a theme or concern that's occurred in my life. Robin's abusive boyfriend let's me explore abuse in a safe place I can tap out of.

Most often, the question I get about this is: Why would you want to explore abuse?

It's a valid question. Games, as originally pitched to me, were mostly about fantasy fulfillment. You could be the hero who saved the villagers, slay the dragon, and come back celebrated. You could rule a kingdom. You could be the lost princess reclaiming her kingdom through her own skills and talents. While these stories are always fun, they often lacked the emotionally cathartic experience I wanted. My fantasy was to be healthy and happy. But I knew that was a struggle. It wasn't enough for me to jump to the end where happiness and health waited, I wanted to see the growth, the learning, and the recovery.

When I was playing D&D 3.5 with one of the first groups I found when I moved to the big city, one of the players, E, turned to me and we had this conversation about how her character was getting PTSD because of how often their friends were dying (and being brought back) and how traumatic war and battle were. I had never even conceptualized this before. It was a moment where the world of gaming shifted for me and I realized, naturally, she was right. Not five minutes later, her character got frozen on the spot and cous de grais'd. Her head was lopped off and landed at my character's feet. I looked at the player and we laughed a little. The GM turned to me: "What do you do?" I said I screamed and broke down. It was the first moment I chose to play emotionally instead of attacking the enemy. It was liberating.

My next few D&D characters had an emotional core. My synad telepath was becoming an illithid, a Lovecraftian story about a cursed family. Her slow spiral into madness and darkness was reminiscent of depression and my struggle with my own mental health. In the end, I was forced to make a decision for her to kill herself or become the monster, and I chose to die. It was horribly upsetting and my chest gets tight at the memory of it. It was uncomfortable. We took a break after the scene and no one really spoke. I had been depressed before to the point of attempting suicide, and while the scene was familiar, it was also a safe space to touch into that, and it hurt to be brought back there.

The character I made yesterday, Rebekah, was a popular girl whose boyfriend killed her. We haven't hashed out the details, but I do really feel like it was somewhere between beating and strangling. A necromancer brought her back to life, but she crawled and ripped her way out of the horse that she had been put in. Yes. We had been watching too much Hannibal. Rebekah is bound to the necromancer, and hungers for fear. Because it was the last emotion she felt. She's fairly numb to the world. As a person who's been through depersonalization a fair bit throughout my teenage years and early to mid twenties, it's a touchstone to my life I strongly feel. I'm comfortable with this part of my mental health, but going back to it, it makes me look at it in a different light, which is how other people saw my interactions. And I can push it a bit further, and challenge it, in ways that didn't happen to myself.

Emotional play doesn't always mean rehashing or exploring things that were abusive or damaging to you. The more often I play games, however, and find that gamers are a pool of broken people, the more I find people exploring these parts of themselves in, what may be considered, a safe environment. Tragedy strikes us all at some point, blessed are those whom it doesn't. When I can play a game and quietly take apart what losing a parent as a teenager feels like, revisiting emotions I haven't had since I was 14, I get to play with content that will, overall, improve (in the long run) my mental health.

Gaming for mental health? What? It's a common thing I hear people talking about. Some go to gaming for escapism, and some play like I do, using the medium as a form of exposure therapy. I can't give you substantiated evidence that it works, but I can tell you that my continued play in areas that have traditionally made me go quiet instead of talking about things have made me much more able to open up and have discussions about triggering material. It's also made me better at empathizing with others and communicating about those issues that we're playing with.

Because of my openness at games and, well, in my life, many people come to me with emotional health questions. Many of those people have talked about how they bring a lot of stuff to table without realizing it, and how afterwards they're uncertain why they feel a little broken. I try to gently encourage them, within their comfort, to negotiate a space at game where they can unpack some of their thoughts on things that have happened to them while also maintain having fun and figuring out themselves.

Sometimes there's the natural flow of unpacking something to being too triggered or too overwhelmed by what's happening to be able to handle it. Recently, I was playing Robin, who was so blessedly close to having things finally work out and feel like she was a person again. She was a couple months from finishing her PhD, had finally accepted that she does love someone and what that means, and had decided to help make the city safe. She was about to get rid of her hunter powers, and thus, her hunter compulsion. She would be a human. She would be herself again. After a decade.

And then Robin got tossed into hell and fought her way through hordes of demons for a hundred years and came out on the other side just short of killing the devil himself. While this invigorated her companion, the dragon, it shattered Robin. Any semblance of work towards being a person again had been destroyed to survive. It was really brutal to play through and understand as I walked away from the game trying to figure out what to do with that. While it was interesting and compelling on screen, it destroyed my character I had placed my hope in.

The struggle to feel like a person is one I know intimately well. As soon as my mental health starts to slip, my first negative thoughts are always "I don't feel like a person." I still don't know what that means, but the way I internalize that with this character is the ability to function as a regular human being and not act outside of that realm in a way that makes one monstrous. To have that hope just ripped out from something I had been carefully building was a little shattering. I've since quietly written an ending for Robin and left the game.

It's okay to tap out. It's okay to say you toss in the towel. It's okay to change the narration to make the game still playable. It's also okay to say you're done. I've learned the hard way that staying in too long can cause more damage than it helps you sift through. This will probably be a hard lesson if you haven't been trying this style of play for awhile, so be gentle with yourself.

Intimate, emotional, and mental health play is what I go for when I play games. I want games to mean something, and this is partly how they can do that. If this is the type of play you want to engage with, there's some basic advice I can offer.

Keep a close eye on yourself and how you're feeling. If you're feeling a little whelmed or like you're hurting too much after game without being able to keep going, it's probably time to tap out.

Choose one issue, not all of them. Deciding to play a character with all of the things going on is going to be exhausting and probably get a little much. Choose a theme, make it a theme, and talk to your GM about how to integrate that.

Communicate. Talk to your GM, your fellow players, and tell them what you're doing. You don't have to say "I've been abused and I want to play with that in game" but you can say "I wanna play with this triggery stuff. Is everyone okay with that? It may be upsetting." If you hit points where you need a breather, ask for a break.

Have a tap out option and use it. We use an X-card at our table to let people pull out and say "nope" when things get rough. You can also use the O card to help create a space where you can say "more please" in play to balance out. The x-card has been one of the best tools I've come across for problematic play.

Incorporate other's wants into your story. While it's fun to play with your own issues, also see what other people are doing, ask their intention, and how you can help. Being involved with others will help keep the focus on your intense stuff all the time and help give everyone a great experience.

Today I am a mess. Robin's story is fucking me up. That's okay. I'm making sure I'm eating something, drinking water, having a shower, and talking to people about it. I'm unpacking it. I'm carefully looking at it and saying "it's okay your heart hurts for this character because it should." It's good to be able to do that. It wasn't the cathartic experience I wanted, but it's what I got, and it's okay to grieve when things hurt.

I encourage everyone to use a safe space like your gaming groups to help yourself cope with the world around you. To you, that may mean never dealing with bad stuff in game. To others, that may mean using game to start conversations with friends about what's come up in play. And to even more, it may just be a way to look at things without them happening in real life. These are all valid styles of play and there are even more, I'm sure.

Be safe and kind with yourselves. Assume good intention from each other. And stay alive.