Trigger / Content Warning: While this article does not describe in detail any particular acts of abuse or sexual assault, common abusive tactics are acknowledged and discussed. Also, vagaries of the fallout of abuse are discussed, but again, not in grave detail. Read at your own pace and take breaks or stop reading if you need to.
Hi. My name’s Bailey, and I am an abuse and sexual assault survivor.
No one benefits from me discussing the details of what happened to me. In fact, discussing what happened often leads to further harassment towards victims as they begin to get berated with “why didn’t you leave”, “why didn’t you notice sooner”, etc., and I’ve already experienced enough of that, thank you very much.
Instead, I’m going to talk about one of the few ways I was able to get through this whole experience: through board gaming and the board gaming community.
To some, this may seem like an exaggeration. But the truth of the matter is that it’s true. The “space” that modern board gaming has created is second-to-none. Sure, there’s still many, many issues in the community, especially around transphobia, parasocial relationships with designers, and severe entitlement, but generally speaking, board gamers are a respectful, welcoming bunch who are willing to not only embrace individuality, but also explore some really wild spaces in a social setting.
To better outline just how powerful the board gaming landscape has been for me, I’m going to break it down through the lens of how to cope with trauma, as recommended by the American Psychological Association, or the APA. The following are their four effective ways to cope:
So, uh, let’s cope!
Lean on Your Loved Ones
All of my friends play board games. Some of these are people I met throughout life who HAPPENED to play board games, and some are people I became friends with BECAUSE of our taste in board games. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to divvy these lovely folx up into two different groups: The Gals and The Sunday Group.
The Gals, Taylor and Alice of the Daily Worker Placement, are friends of mine for over a decade now. We met through Alice’s work as a college pastor. Taylor and I are a part of the same graduating class and after Alice’s services, we would all get together and play games. At the time, it was mainly Catan or Carcassonne. However, as time has gone on, the games played have grown to be both more “in the hobby”, and much weirder (due to Alice’s eclectic taste).
While I lost some connection with Alice and Taylor over time, mainly due to the isolation I was subjected to by my abuser, when I was freeing myself from their clutches, Alice and Taylor were there to help me pick up the pieces. They were also the first two people I came out to as trans, an experience that was truly an honor to be able to share with them.
Aren’t these two awesome? You should check out their podcast.
The Sunday Group is a very different experience. I met this group by sheer coincidence of existing in the same online space as the guy who organized the weekly meetings. At first, going to the sessions every Sunday was just about playing games. But as time went on, it was about spending time with these amazing folx. And as 20/20 vision has since revealed to me, being able to leave the house once a week, on the weekend, to be away from my abuser for a day, was absolutely necessary for my sanity. There would be many weeks when I would sob on the way home from playing games. At first I assumed this was because I was getting ready to start a new work week, and I didn’t get to play games for another week. But now, I realize just how difficult it was for me to go back home after an afternoon away from my abuser.
While I got to spend a large chunk of time with these lovely people at a board game table, it certainly wasn’t the only time I got to spend with them. Going clothes shopping with Taylor when I was too afraid to go by myself; getting drinks with Scott from The Sunday Group on a Friday to get another evening free; being in charge of teaching most games so that I could spend hours prepping each one, letting me become engrossed in the game and forget where I am: all of these smaller happenings really helped me stay focused on getting out safely.
I never let anyone know what was going on. No one knew the sheer depths of pain, embarrassment, or manipulation I was experiencing. Yet, each person I got to play a game with was helpful to my freedom and recovery. Not because they were a player in a game: but because they are all supportive, endearing people that never judged me for being quieter than normal, or for being less energetic than normal, or for not having a rules teach ready (although I always, always did).
Face Your Feelings
The board gaming sphere nowadays has such a wide variety of subject matters. Wanna rob a train? Wanna perform magic tricks? What about trading opium in China? Or help a guy die peacefully? You can really do almost anything you want on a tabletop.
And while I did not play a game about abuse that helped me, there are many different types of games or popular mechanisms that helped me recontextualize the thoughts that were going on in my head.
Take for example something like Twilight Struggle. The push and pull of playing cards that help you AND your opponent? Well, that was something that I was very much dealing with. I was trying (at the time, in my darkest moments) to both keep my abuser happy, while trying to keep myself happy. Or take a card game like Radlands, where each player is in charge of keeping three towers alive, and when all three of your towers are destroyed, you lose. How do you balance yourself and your actions? Do you let one tower become the focal point, and the other two fall? Or do you try to save all three? That’s what I was doing on a day-to-day basis. Do I let my relationship with other’s fall so I can make my abuser happy? How much of myself do I have to sacrifice for this relationship?
These are all mechanical examples, but there were some thematic examples that helped too, as silly as some of these may be. Wouldn’t it be cool to run a vineyard like in Viticulture? Or run a fancy art gallery like in Modern Art? Or if I could just get on a bus and get the heck outta here like in Bus?
Maybe not a bus in a universe with time travel, but also…
The last part of this coping mechanism I want to talk about is the silence, stillness, and peace that can come at a board game table. An efficiency Euro with like-minded players can be a quiet place, and a safe place to think about and process what’s been going on in your life. Meditating at home was not a safe idea for me at the time because if I were to break down, I’d be caught and I’d have to come up with some excuse. But at a board game table, I was distracted by the game enough that I wouldn’t spiral, but focused enough on my trauma that I could deal with it in bite-sized chunks to keep myself going.
I am a chronic people pleaser. I have gone out of my way to make, and keep, other people happy. But over time, as I started to realize just how crucial getting together and playing board games with others truly was, and how it was one of the best ways for me to practice self-care, I started to merely state that I was going. This statement would often come in defiance of the wishes of my abuser, and yet, I never let up on my insistence on going. One of the last conversations that I had with them before I left them was about this topic. They were insisting I stop playing every week, and switch to an every-other-week schedule. But I stood my ground. For once in my life, I stood my ground. I made myself my priority.
Board games require a lot of patience. Since you’re reading this, I’m sure you know just how much patience is required to play a game. But have you ever thought about the patience required about board gaming? As in, learning a game, setting up a game, tearing down a game, selling a dud of a game, waiting for a Kickstarter to fulfill, waiting for the games you just ordered to show up…
And I was surprisingly patient in my life. I knew I wanted to leave, had to leave, but I knew I had to do it properly. In time. Organized. I rented a storage locker three months before I left and started to buy things in small enough increments that they wouldn’t know. I signed a lease on the apartment six weeks before I left so I could move in and be ready to flip the switch when I could.
This patience didn’t entirely come from board gaming, but that skill was certainly shaped by it.
Board games didn’t save me from my abuser. I did. But board games, and the community I was (and still am) apart of certainly helped me see just how… wrong things were, and that I didn’t have to live like that. They helped give me the tools I needed to recognize and survive when nothing else could. They held me when I was upset and gave me a platform to find joy when I thought it wasn’t possible to find anymore. I will never forget what this silly little hobby with cubes, cones, and minis did for me during this period of my life.
To those reading this who are having thoughts pop up about your own spouse/partner/significant other, do not ignore them. Talk to someone. Talk to a professional, whether it’s your therapist or The Domestic Violence Helpline at (800) 799-SAFE (7233). Talk to trusted friends or family. I am not a therapist, but I am a survivor, and you could reach out to me if you don’t feel comfortable doing any other option. I have a Contact button in my bio. But please, do not ignore your intuition.
[…] See, I’ve not had a great year. A game about coping through trauma, about rebuilding one’s self from nothing, about overcoming the harmful triggers, is exactly what I needed. Really, Heading Forward is an optimistic game: its failstate is not death nor lack of recovery, it’s simply that insurance has run out, or more literally, time has run out. Speaking from experience, running out of time is not the end. If I were following the game’s rules in my life, I failed the stated objective: I took much longer than I thought for my own recovery. But recovery is a long, long process. In some ways, I don’t know if I will ever recover from everything I’ve experienced. But I can say that I have maxed out 4 or 5 cards from my deck at this point, and I am back to living life the way I want to be. Not on the original timeframe, but I’m here now, healthy and happy. […]