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What Video Games Are Teaching Me About My Trauma

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I didn’t grow up playing video games and I had no real interest in spending my downtime doing so … until my chronic illnesses restricted my movements to my bed. While spending days and eventually months in bed, my roommate helped me find games I liked and felt capable of playing. Through this continued process, I accidentally exposed some trauma symptoms I hadn’t yet addressed.

At first, it felt very difficult to find games I might like, as I didn’t like cooperative games, nor did I like time limits or other high-stress components. However, I did find a genre of games I seem to love: simulations. My favorite games have been “Civilization” (simulating growing a civilization), “The Sims” (simulating a person’s life), “SimCity” (simulating managing a city) and “Minecraft” (simulating exploring).

These are my favorite games because they offer me what I didn’t have during my traumatic childhood: a sense of control. Though there is uncertainty and risk elements in all of these games, I tend to play them with those elements set as low as I am allowed. These are my safe games, which I can play to relax, unwind or distract myself from overwhelming emotions. Learning this has given me a helpful tool to cope with distress, and informed me of how deeply I feel this need for control in my life.

Since then, I have tried other games which test my ability to cope with uncertainty, failure and adaptation. In the “real” world, I have held this false belief that because I am generally overprepared and able to adapt to adversity, I am equipped to cope with uncertainty. Though my traumatic experiences taught me to mentally anticipate for every possible outcome, and how to drop my needs at a moment’s notice, I do not have the emotional stability, the resilience or the amount of self-compassion required to cope with risking failure. This is a hard truth to swallow.

It’s been embarrassing at times, learning these lessons. More than once I have cried in frustration because I cannot see my way out of a problem, or because I know I will fail and need to start again. More than once my kind roommates have helped me problem solve through my tears, understanding I am not overreacting to a video game, but rather working on unlearning trauma-based behaviors.

I hate being vulnerable. I hate to cry in front of people, I hate to struggle in front of people. I have spent the majority of my life hiding away to avoid being witnessed in a vulnerable position. Playing certain video games is teaching me that it’s OK to struggle. It’s OK to try and fail, and try and fail again. It’s OK to do these things in front of other people. It’s OK to learn through failure, rather than trying to know everything first. These are statements I have told myself before, but now I know I have a lot more work to do before I believe them.

Unsplash image by Glenn Carstens Peters

Originally published: January 12, 2021
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