John’s mother worked during the day, so he stayed with his neighbors. 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 4-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 organization 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.
That helped him realize 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.”
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 internalize 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’ve 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.
Image by Jim Cooke