Sex Abuse Survivor Finds Comfort In Video Games

Sex Abuse Survivor Finds Comfort In Video Games

John's mother worked during the day, so he stayed with his neighbours. They seemed normal, nice. He didn't know it at the the time, but later, it would become clear he had been sexually abused -- repeatedly. John was four years old, and credits games with bringing him back from the brink.

As you might have guessed, John is not this person's real name, it's a pseudonym. John hasn't told many people about these events, his mother included. But John felt his story could help people, and so he came to me a few months back, and we started chatting over email. We talked on Skype. I cannot explicitly verify the events in question, though I have spoken to a friend of John's, who relayed details about the incident. I've also spoken with a sex abuse organisation who said nothing about his story "would give [them] any pause if coming from a survivor." Plus, I can't think of a good reason John would be lying; he has nothing to gain.

With that, let me tell you about John. He's 23-year-old, has lived in Ireland his whole life, and besides participating in this story, considers himself a private person.

"Even my Twitter account, I've got an Octodad profile picture," he told me, "and I don't have my real name anywhere. But...I obviously started talking to close friends, family about that stuff."

"That stuff" refers to the sexual abuse that John now recalls from his childhood.

Try to remember what you were doing at 4-years-old. It's probably fuzzy. It was for John, too.

"I was too young to know what was going on," he said. "[...] It was pretty severe, and it absolutely fucked me up.

John doesn't recall much about his abuser, other than the fact that he was an older boy -- a teenager. It wouldn't be until years later that John learned that he'd committed suicide.

"I still feel guilty I didn't tell someone while he was alive," he said.

This went on for several years, and they eventually moved away. Though he hadn't processed what happened, let alone told anyone, consequences of the abuse manifested in other ways.

It was easier back then, he argued, as he could bask in "blissful ignorance."

"I started having issues with anger and anxiety attacks, with a big ol' dose of depression," he said. "I had a pretty bad temper for a 7, 8-year-old kid. [I attended] a low-income area school that didn't have a lot of funding. [I] got into a lot of fights when I was little. I'd argue with teachers and stuff like that. All of that stuff directly tied into the experiences I had. Before that, I was just a fairly chill kid."

When John hit puberty, hormones kicked in, and he started learning about sex. That's when the light bulb went off, and he started looking back at his younger years in a newer, darker context.

What he remembers about his abuse is the feeling of powerlessness, a resentment that grew as time went on. Games allowed him to exert power over a situation. Virtual, yes, but still power.

"Having some sort of direct influence on the world, especially my own character, is a big draw for games," he said.

At age 7, he fell in love with Final Fantasy VII. The stars of Square Enix's RPG were carrying around their own baggage.

Sex Abuse Survivor Finds Comfort In Video Games

That helped him realise characters, like people, could be deeply flawed and still live fulfilling lives that weren't completely defined by past trauma.

"I guess it was one of the first experiences I had with a world where people acknowledge the world can be shitty," he said.

In the celebrated RPG, the main character, Cloud Strife, discovers his memories are false. Another character, Vincent Valentine, was experimented on, resulting in the curse of eternal life. Barret Wallace lost everyone he loved, prompting him to view life through a lens of hatred and bloodlust.

"Everyone in that story has suffered from something," he said, "but regardless, they are still saving the world and ostensibly doing great things. That game is silly in a lot of ways, but there is a story there that's fairly dark and complex for someone [at] the age I was when playing it."

The way Irish culture treats sex contributed to John's identification with video game characters. Ireland is largely Roman Catholic -- 84.2% of the population follows the church, based on 2011 census data -- and it's not a topic that exactly dominates conversation. Sex is just not something people talk about, though he noted this attitude seems to changing among Ireland's youth.

Even during the awkward teenage years, the abuse remained his secret. While adults were trying to protect him from the evils of the world, no one knew evil had already found him.

"I knew, subconsciously, [adults] were not telling me the whole picture," he said. "So games became a bit more of an outlet for exploring that idea."

Not every experience he has with games is positive. Unexpected things can trigger bad feelings or memories. Triggers can be anything, really -- a phrase, a sound, a touch. It depends on the person and their experience, and those affected may not even know what could set them off. (This is where you get things like "trigger warnings" in front of sensitive material these days.)

John is careful about playing online, for example, because how often people use the term "rape" to describe dominance over another player.

When watching playthroughs of the short horror game P.T., the jump scares would provoke anxiety, a kind of existential stress he recalled from his youth. The implied sexual violence in Silent Hill 2, a game he played through recently, caught him by surprise. He already knew what was coming in Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, a game that generated controversy over the character Paz. If you listened to the audio diaries within the game, it becomes clear Paz had been tortured and raped.

"I don't presume to speak for any survivors of rape or sexual abuse, just myself here, but while it was crude and heavy handed, it definitely tapped into the savage and cruel nature of the act itself," he said. "It goes on way too long and subjects the viewer to this disturbing scene. When it's happening to you, that's exactly what you do. You sit there, so to speak, and wait for it to be over."

Sex Abuse Survivor Finds Comfort In Video Games

To John, games can be an environment to work through his complicated emotional reactions.

"It's giving you the muscle memory of dealing with that [stress] in other circumstances where it might not be so safe or whatever -- having an anxiety attack outside or whatever," he said. "That can happen sometimes. Having gone through experiences in games where you deal with it on a smaller scale in an environment, where you control it entirely, it becomes very easy to learn how to deal with it and internalise it, if that makes sense."

To cope with the loss of his uncle a few months back, John turned to The Binding of Isaac, and suddenly found himself 100 hours deep into the endlessly replayable roguelike.

"I was very conscious of it [games] being a coping mechanism," he said.

Of course, games haven't been the only way John's learned to find peace. When he told people about what happened to him, a weight was lifted. He's talked to psychologists, too. (They have never understood the game thing.) Talking to me was, for John, the next step in that process.

"[I] wanted to reach out and see if I could help other folks who might be in similar situations but too afraid to talk to anyone," he wrote me in our first email exchange. "I've definitely been in that position before, and I know that letting people know they aren't alone can really help."

If he has any message to video game creators, it's less about how they should handle sex or sexual abuse in video games but about the importance of story and interesting characters.

"Even when they were very basic characters, there was something there that you could identify with," he said.

For support and advice in a personal crisis, call Lifeline 24/7 on 13 11 14, or visit lifeline.org.au.

Picture: Jim Cooke


Comments

    that story mirrors mine very closely.
    i too turned to video games from a young age as a way to escape from whatever i was feeling after my parents divorce and sexual abuse (which i too, didnt realise at the time).
    this though has brought about its own issues in not dealing with things as an adult, looking for a way to escape as soon as things get too much, which is really unhealthy, especially now i have a wife and kid.
    rather then turning to alcohol or drugs, video games became my addiction. yse i have learnt some great skills from playing video games all my life, but i think if i had received professional help as a younger person, my life would be very different and for the better right now.

    i recently spoke up about my experience, as the person who abused me was coming back into my life and i needed to make sure my daughters well being was going to be paramount. the fall out with parties involved may never be repaired, but i have not felt this much freedom from the shadow i have been living in for 25 years. and i also know that i made the right choice in making sure my daughter is safe. i physiologically felt a shift for the better in who i am and how i carry myself.

    there are so many unreported cases of sexual abuse of males and females and its something that wasnt your fault. even if it was palmed off as a 'game' when you were younger, it doesnt make it right. i cant stress how important it is to talk to someone and get professional help with this sort of issue.
    for me, it shaped my whole life, how i carried and viewed myself, how i interacted with others, how i treat people that are close to me, how i hurt others to keep myself safe. 5/6 of my life has been spent surviving each day, always cautious, always guarded, always suspecting and doubting and setting up fail-safes to push people away at a moments notice. and i can tell you, i have lived a very lonely painful life so far, the type of loneliness where you are surrounded by people that dont want you to feel lonely, and you dont want to feel lonely, but you dont know any other way to be in control. its shit and tiring.

    speak up, get help. for your sanity and your well being.
    feel free to ask me advice if you think it will help and you have no where to turn.

      Mate, just want to say congratulations on putting your family's safety first, no matter what the fall out was. I have young kinds myself and they are so innocent and pure. I would probably end up in jail if I found out someone sexually abused them.

        you and me both. nothing enrages me more then thinking of my little girl going through what i have had to go through.

      props to you sir, i've lived that life in my younger years. Took a long time to reach out and seek the help that I needed
      Fallout from revelations of said abuse are sadly common, your daughter shall be safer from it though. The struggle remains for victims, but we can attempt to heal, and get better. At least empathy is learnt from the bad

    (This is where you get things like “trigger warnings” in front of sensitive material these days.)
    Really hope John doesn't read this site. Or he might have read an EB employee's rape story with no warning at all.

      In "We've gone too far with trigger warnings", feminist writer Jill Filipovic argues that trigger warnings in general (eg. not specifically feminist) spaces aren't necessarily reasonable and are more likely for show than any real benefit.

      The trouble with PTSD, though, is that its triggers are often unpredictable and individually specific – a certain smell, a particular song, being touched in that one way. It's impossible to account for all of them, because triggers are by their nature not particularly rational or universally foreseeable. Some are more common than others, though, which is why it seems reasonable enough for explicitly feminist spaces to include trigger warnings for things like assault and eating disorders.

      But generalized trigger warnings aren't so much about helping people with PTSD as they are about a certain kind of performative feminism: they're a low-stakes way to use the right language to identify yourself as conscious of social justice issues. Even better is demanding a trigger warning – that identifies you as even more aware, even more feminist, even more solicitous than the person who failed to adequately provide such a warning.

        You've made two lovely looking quote boxes without a link to the source, and are yet to actually proffer an opinion?

          The name of the article is in quotes in the first sentence. My opinion is in agreement with the quoted blocks.

          Last edited 22/07/15 8:19 pm

            Ah, you didn't actually mention you agreed with that feminist journalist's unqualified opinion piece which doesn't relate to this site or this article or my comment.

              You don't see how a comment on the inefficacy of trigger warnings relates to your comment on the absence of trigger warnings? For that matter, what constitutes a 'qualified' opinion piece in your mind?

                Relevant qualifications. You're quoting a journalist and attorney. No part of that includes any knowledge or training on anything related to triggers, trigger warnings, websites, or gaming sites.

                Your quotes talk about how varied triggers can be. A specific mention of rape and/or abuse
                would be the most widely held common trigger for any victim. As there is no age verification system on this site, and it is fair to assume younger children would visit it, and likely click on an article about being an EB employee, and find the first story ends in rape, a trigger warning is not performative feminism as your opinion and opinion piece declare, but rather a sensible socially responsible action.

                  She's a recognised and published author, her work on feminism appears in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism among other academic publications, and she's a contributor to the anthology 'Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape'. I'd say it's safe to say she has knowledge and/or experience with the subject domain.

                  What qualifications do you have to make your initial comment on triggers? Assuming you're equally 'unqualified', and given her opinion is counter to yours, I don't think it should come as any surprise that the published feminist writer's opinion rates higher than yours.

                  @zombiejesus She has written pro-feminist articles that get published in pro-feminist publications. Thats a weak justification. What was her contribution to Yes Means Yes? Because thats the only publication that in any way relates to rape, and even there, it is specifically about females being raped, which is only half of the topic. So, no, not safe to say she has knowledge and/or experience.

                  I don't need qualifications to offer a comment. You are the one with an opinion. You're trying to use her quotes as justification to refute my comment. Even though her comments don't relate. Specifically, saying that trigger warnings should only be used in feminist spaces is a particularly ridiculous opinion of hers. By all means hold that ridiculous opinion yourself.

                  She contributed an essay to the book, which is an anthology of essays.

                  I used her opinion to counter yours, yes. I'm sorry you don't like the fact her opinion holds more weight than yours but she clearly has experience with the topic. It's unfortunate that when presented with a contrary view your first response was to attack the credibility of the writer, particularly when you have no inherent credibility yourself.

                  @zombiejesus Unfortunately you are mistaken. I'll gladly correct you.

                  My initial comment was not an opinion. It was a statement of fact. The EB Employee story contained a rape with no warning. I did not offer an opinion on it.

                  You apparently took umbrage at this calm assertion and posted your absurd opinion with a feminist writer's biased (she is paid consistently to hold a controversial stance) opinion piece who believes trigger warnings should only exist for feminists in feminist spaces (durrr absurd. You and Jill don't believe men might benefit trigger warnings). None of what you posted contravenes the fact I pointed out. It just reveals your mistaken stance, poor choice of supporting evidence and efforts to start an argument where none can possibly exist.

                  Since you introduced opinions into the discussion, I felt justified in presenting my own opinion on your poorly chosen "supporting" opinion. At which you have twice now tried to declare my opinion invalid and unworthy. Your poor head must be aching trying to justify one opinion and denigrate another when neither require supporting evidence to be held, At this point you are ignoring that my initial comment was a simple fact and attempting to laud your own feminist writer's opinion (absurd and irrelevant). Unfortunately, her opinion only holds weight in your own mind, and fails to demonstrate evidence to support your and her claims.

                  Sadly, googling for a support for your opinion produced a really unfortunate example of a journalist, rather than actual evidence. Regretfully, you can't reasonably sustain such a stance here now. Better luck next time.

                  You're entitled to your opinion of course, nobody has said otherwise. I've simply countered it with the opinion of someone with actual experience in the subject. Even now you still try to attack, both the credibility of the writer and the notion that I must surely have Googled her article rather than being familiar with her work.

                  You and Jill don't believe men might benefit trigger warnings

                  The fact you think that's what either of us have argued, or that feminism is just for women rather than being about equality for everyone, is incredibly sad.

                  @zombiejesus Of course, you're still ignoring that my initial comment comment was fact. And you aren't aware of any experience or knowledge I have on the topic, so it is impertinent at the least to dismiss it. Fortunately, I don't need to substantiate my opinion with anything. It is sad that you feel the need to do so with yours. And in doing so, neglect that it is meaningless when compared to the simple fact that I posted initially.

                  Unfortunately again you are mistaken about my opinions on feminism, which I have not shared. Shame on you for making assumptions. Your journalist's opinions about feminism are specifically related to women. By the numbers, on average globally less than 20% of any male individuals identify as feminist. A small percentage of that would also be a victim who could possibly benefit from trigger warnings. An infinitesimally tinier portion of that would visit "explicitly feminist spaces". Therefore your source's opinions are targeted at, in a vast majority, women and women's explicitly feminist spaces. Please note, I am not commenting about feminism, just identifying your poor choice of "supporting" opinion's target market. That market that keeps her employed. That market that she specifically writes to. That market that ensures her livelihood. That ensures her bias. See, bias is something that exists. It is not an attack to point it out. Oh and again, writing about something does not equate to experience. At best it is knowledge, although without accreditation specific to the field, your source has no discernible knowledge on the topic.

                  Argument: an exchange of diverging or opposite views. Exactly what has been posted by us. You might find the dictionary a better source than these biased financially incentivized journalists writing to a specific agenda.

                  And please, do actually say something about my initial factual post?

                  It's not my goal to persuade you with the counterpoint I posted. Given how you engage with people in your other posts it seems that contrary views are anathema to you. What I posted is simply there to counterbalance your initially implicit opinion that Kotaku should have included a trigger warning by showing that there are dissenting views on the appropriateness and usefulness of such warnings from respectable sources. Others can decide for themselves which argument (if any) they agree with.

                  You're welcome to rebut the content of Filipovic's argument, naturally, but going for ad hominem attacks is universally poor form.

                  @zombiejesus
                  It's not my goal to persuade you with the counterpoint I posted. Did you counterpoint a factual statement? No, that would be silly.

                  Given how you engage with people in your other posts it seems that contrary views are anathema to you. Happy to discuss is what I take from my posts. What can I take from a profile set to private? Something to hide? Something you're embarrassed about? Not willing to allow other posters to sort through your history and identify your ongoing mistakes and behaviours?

                  initially implicit opinion No no no, you have me sorely mistaken. There is no implicit. I stated a fact.

                  What I posted is simply there to counterbalance How do you counterbalance a fact? With opinion? Hardly.

                  that Kotaku should have included a trigger warning
                  Based on my own research, trigger warnings are almost entirely useless. I never proffered that opinion previously, so it is easy to see why you would be mistaken. Why you would produce a mistaken opinion based on your own assumption from my posted fact, that is your own issue.

                  by showing that there are dissenting views on the appropriateness and usefulness of such warnings from respectable sources. There are dissenting views and sources on gravity. Care to post some of those? Just because they exist in the form of an opinion, does not give them worth.

                  What qualifications do you have to make your initial comment on triggers? Assuming you're equally 'unqualified', and given her opinion is counter to yours, I don't think it should come as any surprise that the published feminist writer's opinion rates higher than yours. That is the first ad hominem attack in this thread.

                  Unfortunately, you really will have to hope to do better next time. Maybe don't "counter" facts with "opinions"?

                  Last edited 23/07/15 5:32 pm

    That MGS Ground Zeroes tape was disgusting. It almost seemed like they wanted to you enjoy listening to it, and it made me feel sick. Maybe if Kojima had a respectable track record of tackling issues of that kind of thing I would be more understanding. But his history with sexual content is pretty much just sexualising female characters.

      Not true. As a media professional, I'd say a three-dimensional perspective of representation and interactive narrative conventions would allow you to unpack the scenes and the information communicated. It's unfortunate that an extreme level of certainty held by most over their sub-par media content knowledge causes lots of work to be misconstrued. True, many interpretations of any work can exist but you can't simply ignore what is there so it supports a perspective you already held. Depiction is not the same as endorsement and many techniques have been developed over the years in cinema, photography and literature to help us communicate more complex perspectives in sometimes graphic and uncomfortable ways. We only need people to allow this knowledge to be considered with less immediate trust given to their uneducated perspective. Sexualised content is everywhere and the male gaze is heavily in effect but it's important we actually learn from what this tells us about art as communication instead of randomly pointing our finger whenever we reach a moment of disequilibrium.

      I would never assume survival techniques when I got lost hiking, i'd read about and learn them first. That way, I wouldn't eat a poisonous berry and harm my perspective of hiking as opposed to informing it. It's simply having a voice that is as legitimate as it is loud.

    I was raped by a female babysitter when I was 8. Video games didn't help.

    I wonder if "survivor" is the right term to be using in this case in the same way it applies to situations wherein the vicitim's life is at stake. Anecdotally, victims of sexual abuse during their childhood aren't under threat of being killed, although obviously I'm sure this happens. Words matter, and the term "survivor" is perhaps better left to situations where the victim faces a real threat to their survival. In some ways it dilutes what the victims endure and ignores the context in which it takes place, while in some ways equivocating the survival of say, a massacre and the survival of abuse which is entirely inappropriate.

      Considering the lack of self worth one gets from such abuse, and the spiral of depression that results. Survivor works, being called a victim for the rest of your life , with lack of self worth... not so good. Like you said. words matter

    A friend of mine had a very similar experience. A lot of our group of friends acted very poorly when it became known and my friend (the victim) only brought them closer instead of lashing back out (which would be entirely understandable). As a bunch of immature teenagers, i'm pretty sure this experience didn't just affect him but it affected every one of us. In a truly inherently masculine culture - and definitely supported by our group at the time - we changed. The amount of times I saw a bunch of footy boys cringe at THEMSELVES whenever they made a sexualised comment out of habit and begin apologising profusely definitely made me feel like these guys gained a valuable perspective.

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