The Healing Games—Makeshift
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When a therapist feels out of reach, innovators reach out through the digital realm

— The Healing Games

I remember the week I tried to get a therapist. I’d been on antidepressants for three years, and was still struggling with how to function on an everyday level. That week, I was exhausted and panicked, and turned to the internet to find potential therapists to help me cope.

In hindsight, the first phone call wasn’t as disastrous as it seemed at the time. But I still recall the immediate warmth rising to my cheeks with the therapist’s impatience. She charged USD 150 per session, and immediately asked if I could afford that. My voice stammered. She continued, “What would be a good price for you?”

I do not barter a lot, much less with therapists, so as my mouth opened to respond, my voice betrayed me and let out only a small whimper. “Right. I can cut down to 100 a week,” she responded.

There wasn’t a bi-weekly option, and no evening appointments were offered. My health insurance covers up to USD 500 of therapy per year, and adding USD 400 to my monthly bills felt hefty. She sighed and referred me to another therapist who might charge less, but insisted that there’s no chance I could have a bi-weekly option. “That’s not how therapy works. You don’t get results that way.”

I never call her referral.

After an exhausting search, I gave up. Inexpensive services had long waiting lists, and nearby subsidized mental health facilities earned reputations as unfriendly environments for queer folks. My anxiety worsened as I tried to find a therapist who specialized in post-traumatic stress disorder. I decided to steer off-road and journey into self-care, beginning with meditation and writing — but eventually learning to create a video game from scratch.

Games can offer a safer space to challenge the realities beyond the digital world.

Games can offer
a safer space to challenge the realities beyond the digital world.

“Healing, for me, is learning to manage the cloud of confusion that comes with having PTSD,” Kevin Snow, a game designer, tells me. His most recent game, “Beneath Floes”, weaves illustrated interactive fiction made through a collaborative partnership with Pinnguaq, a Nunavut-based game and app development studio.

Kevin (and others there) survived abuse from a traumatic childhood, a physical disability sustained from training in the Air Force, and the horrors of being assaulted by the medical hold facility staff. Like me, the group found a way to heal trauma through creating video games, and discovered an audience with which they can relate.

In the empowering world of game making, the creator writes the law, decides how to communicate rules, and controls an environment in which outcomes are meticulously planned. It’s a soothing, yet invigorating craft. Not all games require complex graphics and loud sounds; they can be as simple as connecting stories via hyperlinks, or as complex as a series of equations. They offer an alternative world, with unique characters, choices, and morals to share with those who play them. The craft can also be a communicative exercise — reaching out to others who might relate or benefit from playing the game, as well.

Game design is surprisingly accessible, too. There are several free game-making tools that don’t require a computer science or programming background. Tools like Twine, RenPy, Stencyl, and GameSalad all come with extensive online tutorials, and the assumption that folks using the tools are new to game development.

While for many players, video games open up worlds of fantasy, war, or sports, a smaller subset of gamers and makers instead utilize these tools to tackle internal battlefields.

“Crafting fictional games about abuse and disability for an audience has taught me to understand my emotions and how I can communicate them to others,” Kevin says. “With each game I make, I feel like I obtain more control over my past and become more autonomous as a survivor.”

This last point echoes a central goal of many therapists: to help people overcome and accept their experiences. For gamers taking on these personal themes, it’s about learning this process for oneself, as well as sharing the story.

Rose Morgan, an illustrator, is working on a game about exploring an alien planet. The project has been an outlet — and in some ways a metaphor — to tackle and soothe her long-term depression and PTSD.

“Bleeding the poisons out on a digital canvas was, and still is, great therapy,” Rose explains. “People connect with what I make and know they’re not alone.”

Designing the project with this in mind, Rose says, comes with  great value for her and other players. “I’d made something beautiful out of [my] sadness that other people could connect to and that helped me far more than just drawing how I felt. It became a cause much bigger than myself.”

“With each game I make, I feel like I obtain more control over my past.”

The digital realm has allowed for this kind of sharing in ways not attainable even just years ago. With relatively low overhead, and self-teach-able skills, makers can shape games to vent anger, share any emotion, or promote any belief. When involving highly personal or often stigmatized issues like trauma, depression, and anxiety, games provide both a place to be completely honest with others, while retaining the choice of anonymity.

Over the past few years, I shared my stories through the text-based games “Penalties” (about my Palestinian identity) and “reProgam” (about dealing with traumatic relationships). Folks reached out saying my stories gave them hope or comfort in knowing they weren’t alone. It was simultaneously a healing exercise to create a space for myself to safely work through repressed memories, and uplifting to discover that I was able to create a community with others who wanted to do the same. To let go of traumatic experiences is empowering, but to shape a new voice growing from a supportive audience is irreplaceable.

While playing games was always my lifetime hobby, learning to create them has transformative experience that opens a new world of healing possibilities.

Between Kevin, Rose, and myself, we all discovered a nook in game development that tended to our experiences with PTSD. Trauma especially can feel much like a mental and physical betrayal; I never know when a trigger will spring a trap and catch me off guard. Yet when I’m designing a game, I know that I’m the only one who can control the triggers, and remove them entirely if I’m communicating to a larger audience. As the master of the game I choose to make, I can create a universe of objects that only feel and share joy, and lose my intrusive thoughts in that beauty. “With each  game I make,  I feel like I obtain more control  over my past.”

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