Games that heal
Making games in Twine has helped one woman cope with pain other methods haven't reached, and connected a community
The games I make are more to me than just games -- they’re tools of healing and community.
My first work, Penalties is about microaggressions I’ve witnessed and experienced as a Palestinian-Iraqi. I built it by myself using hypertext game-building tool Twine, and it’s since been exhibited in Toronto and Montreal, and used in courses about game design and rhetorical studies.
Looking back on it now, it’s a mess; the thought of people playing it makes me cringe. It needs more polish: the text is misaligned, there’s no title page (no, it’s not called Awake, but I don’t blame you for thinking that), there are no content warnings about self-harm and mutilation (please take care if you try Penalties yourself), and it feels miserable.
But it still made me proud to have people call it powerful and important -- I was even proud that people found it confrontational, even when their criticisms seemed rooted more in anti-Palestinian politics than in pleas for neutrality. It got under their skin, and I found that gratifying.
But Penalties wasn’t just my first time making a game -- it was the first time I fictitiously tore my body piece by piece, gruesomely baring my vulnerabilities to the player. It was a public display of deep resentment, and I wanted the player to feel hopeless and alone.
My second game, reProgram, tried to stitch some of those pieces back up to create something just as uncomfortable -- but with a light at the end.
reProgram is a love story about healing from sexual abuse through a BDSM relationship. The protagonist, pet, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is trapped in a tower, followed by a nagging shadow who undermines her every move. There are three levels to the tower that each address an aspect of meditation or self-love: yoga, writing, and masturbation.
Instead of feeling fulfilled and at peace after completing a level, pet feels frustration and guilt, haunted by the shadow’s constant put-downs. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the most therapeutic behavior for pet is to be leashed and (consensually) beaten by a loving, dominant partner.
Where Penalties was about ripping my body apart to show my frustrations with the world, reProgram was about relieving my frustrations with healing -- by inviting in a different kind of pain. It was a difficult story to write, not because of the baggage tied to its roots, but because I was concerned about over-exposing myself to players. The responses to reProgram varied: it made people cry, it turned others on. Some people thought it was promoting sexual abuse, and others saw it as embarrassing erotica.
But I made conscientious aesthetic choices: I disrupted the “damsel-in-a-tower” trope with jarring text translations and visual cues, and I destroyed images in hex editors to create glitch art -- all of these visual elements, to me, helped support a story where I get out of the place where I’m trapped, in the way that I want to get out.
Traditional forms of self-care are exhausting when you’re not sure if you want to care for yourself in the first place. I tried being the kind of therapy patient who can meditate flashbacks away and feel at ease with inspirational quotes hanging on my walls, but it was too suffocating. Negotiating kink sessions where I give up control and allow myself to cry, scream, and beg is immensely liberating. Relinquishing my sexual autonomy on my terms, in contained scenes, is a hands-on therapy method that kickstarted my ability to make sense of my pain.
And Twine was the perfect tool for re-creating the sessions that led me on the path of healing.
Its ease and accessibility attracts diverse creators, and many of them are writing stories about themselves -- frequently, these stories are about their personal experiences with pain and growth. Jess Downs’ The Day After Chemo is about a young person attempting to balance daily housekeeping and work after fresh rounds of chemotherapy, and Nina Freeman’s Mangia follows the stress of a woman’s battle with chronic illness and an eating disorder.
I wrote an article about diversity in the Twine game community for a Toronto-based independent arts magazine titled Broken Pencil, where I focused on Ontario gamemakers Elliot Pines, Rokashi, merritt kopas, and Kaitlin Tremblay, who have each designed emotionally tumultuous games with autobiographically-themed narratives. It’s incredible that even though these creators work separately and have distinct authorial voices, there are deeply-personal parallels among their games.
Many game makers open emotional wounds when developing Twine games, and yet all of us in this creative community are bonding with each other, whether that’s immediately apparent to us or not. There’s a sense of belonging that forms when we can share our hardships and experience others’ -- all through a design tool that’s free and that can be learned in a single afternoon. Once you let someone’s personal story breathe into you, it can stir an ache to reach out and return your own.
I tear up when playing autobiographical Twines about challenging subjects; I always feel I’m witnessing creators using a game to allow themselves to be human.
Even the act of working with Twine itself can be incredibly soothing: Plotting out and tying in each passage creates a satisfying spider web where I rein in unruly, dangerous, and hateful thoughts. Once I finished reProgram, I looked over my node map, literally and figuratively looking at the connections among things.
Focused on writing, designing and glitching, I hadn’t before realized how organized, neat and small the issue looked when mapped in Twine. There it was -- all my trauma, self-loathing, and emotional frustrations, snapped to a connected grid, with a clarity no other therapeutic tool had ever offered me. My erratic thoughts, my guilt about my past and the ways I’ve coped with it, had become a few hyperlinks securing a linear narrative. My sweat, my tears, all there, coded in design logic, leading to a coherent ending.
All images in this feature are Soha Kareem's own images as seen in reProgram. reProgram will be exhibited between March 24th - April 4th at third.wav, an art exhibition focused on the intersection of feminism and digital and social media, in the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minneapolis.
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