For veterans, watching 15 minutes of a combat movie created an amount of analgesia that was equivalent to an injection of 8 milligrams of morphine.
When people ask me what I get out of gaming, trauma therapy, or kink activities, my answer to all three is the same: They each provide me with access to a contained emotional experience with a clear beginning, middle, and end that I control.
Whether I’m engaging in a role-playing game—my most recent favorite being Witch: The Road To Lindisfarne— wrapped in rope at the hands of a play partner, or sitting across from my therapist, similar needs are being met for me as a trauma survivor. And the access to the emotional spaces that those three experiences provide are essential to my growth and healing.
In his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk explains how trauma reshapes the body and brains of trauma survivors. In discussing the ways in which our minds are altered by the psychological contusions trauma creates, he cited a study wherein combat veterans were asked to submit to a standard pain test while watching scenes from movies.
Seven of the eight veterans kept their hands in painfully cold water 30% longer during graphically violent scenes than other media.
The reason that they were able to do so is that witnessing those fifteen minutes of a combat movie created a certain amount of analgesia — a blocking of the body’s response to pain — that was equivalent to an injection of eight milligrams of morphine.
The strong emotions created by exposure to violent content were able to block pain in the body, leading Van Der Kok to state that, “for many traumatized people, re-exposure to stress might provide a relief from anxiety.” When moderated well, the stressful scenarios brought about by gaming, trauma, and kink activities can make space for re-exposure to stress that feels safe, moderated, and contained.
CK* is a therapist working in the Philadelphia area who specializes in therapy dealing with, among other things, trauma and PTSD. Their approach to trauma therapy begins with neurobiological responses to trauma and focuses on rebuilding survivors’ trust in their bodies.
In talking with them about their thoughts on consensual kink and its usefulness to trauma survivors, they referenced the work of traumatologist Peter Levine, whose stated belief is that the moment of trauma happens when there is immobilization coupled with fear.
According to CK, this is why there is something powerful to be found in consensual kink for sexual trauma survivors:
“The physiological response in our brain toward the end of a really intense kink scene is a stress response. And the experience of having that response without the fear is something that, in terms of the neurological processing, is super powerful.”
The self-discovery and rebuilding of trust in ourselves to make decisions about our bodies and the process of finding humans with whom we can safely explore the depths of kink experiences are deeply powerful processes for survivors. Additionally, the language around consent and boundaries can be very healthy and self-affirming as we navigate our way through the shoals of healing from trauma.It is believed that trauma happens when there is immobilization coupled with fear. Click To Tweet
Kink, gaming, and therapy all have tools at their disposal which facilitators can use to create potent emotional settings that in turn allow people to feel safe enough to bring forward their whole selves in those spaces—that element of facilitation is vital to trauma survivors who may be seeking out safe spaces in which to have emotionally intense experiences.
When it comes to facilitating emotionally intense role playing games (RPGs), Kate Bullock is an expert. As a person who has been facilitating RPGs for 18 years and specializes in creating games with high emotional impact play, Kate Bullock believes that choice and transparency are the ways in which gaming facilitators can get their players to buy into games with high emotional risk:
You have to play vulnerable. You have to be willing to be open yourself as the facilitator. And you have to get player buy-in at the start… being really honest and having integrity around our game space is important. You have to have tone conversations and content warnings and safety tools and say: “Look at how much we are caring for each other, here.”
In terms of safety tools, the gaming community has a lot of them at their disposal. It has become culturally normative in gaming spaces to use content warnings, but many gaming spaces also make use of mechanics such as lines and veils and the X-Card. The X-Card is a mechanic that allows players and facilitators to simply stop whatever is happening in a particular moment by placing their hand on the card. Like safe-words in kink, this stops whatever is happening in the game. Lines and veils allow players at the table (and facilitators) to state what themes or content they do not want to deal with at all (lines) and what they would like to deal with, but not see explicitly played out in front of them in a game (veils).
I sit down at a table to begin facilitating a game of Witch. To start, I address the players.
“This is a game about gendered oppression, violence, and making decisions concerning a woman’s life. That said, are there any themes or scenarios that you would prefer to not deal with at all during the time we are playing?”
Two players inform me that they would prefer that we not deal with sexual assault or animal abuse at all during the course of the game. I write those things down on a card in the middle of the table under the header “Lines.”
“Great! Now, are there any things which you don’t mind us dealing with, but would prefer not to touch on directly? In movie terms, these are themes or scenarios in which we will fade to black in game, but we will all know they are happening.”
One player lets me know that she would prefer we not see sexual activity directly. Another informs me he would like to have child abuse veiled off. I wrote those things on the card under the heading “Veils.”
These safety tools, when coupled with the skills and openness of a good facilitator, allow people to explore intense themes without fearing that players will have to keep going if they become uncomfortable and upset. For trauma survivors, this can provide us with the ability to experience the stress response associated with trauma without the fear coupled with it.
In therapy, there are also opportunities to experience stress response without the attendant fear. Through a process called titration, trauma therapists encourage their clients to add material “a drop at a time,” thus preventing their clients from re-traumatizing themselves while simultaneously building up their tolerances to the feelings that trauma creates. Therapists like CK are always aware that their clients may have to “tap out,” and rely on informed consent at the outset of their therapeutic relationships to allow both themselves and their clients to feel safe bringing their trauma into the room.
Kink, when done well, provides the same outlet. With warm ups and the natural rise and fall of a scene, tops can bring their bottoms to areas of deep physical and psychological endurance. Safewords and good negotiation give the bottom a sense of safety and trust that allow them to fully give themselves over to the scene and find anything from cathartic release to the depths of their ability to endure pain or obedience.Through a process called titration, trauma therapists encourage their clients to add material 'a drop at a time.' Click To Tweet
Storytelling plays a large role in both gaming and therapy as a means for trauma survivors to find healing. CK focuses on walking their clients through the body’s responses to trauma in order to find a sense of trust in the body’s response and in our ability to protect ourselves:
“Because we are cognitive beings, we shame ourselves for not reacting in a way that is self-protective or that we feel we should act. Learning about what your body actually did in those moments is super powerful. Maybe you weren’t able to stop this person, but you made a little motion or something. That’s your body’s instinct to protect. You couldn’t do it, but the instinct was there.”
Through this process of discovery in therapy, survivors can be guided by their therapists to build up trust in their bodies and minds and re-narrate the story away from helplessness and defenselessness and towards a trust that we have the intelligence and the strength to defend ourselves.
In gaming, sometimes our characters are confronted with traumas that we ourselves have experienced. Like narrating our stories in therapy, this can give us the opportunity to experience those emotions again with the added impact of further storytelling.
According to Bullock, experiencing previous traumas in a game through the perspective of your character can give players a bird’s eye view of how they responded to that trauma themselves; it allows the space to process the situation in a new way.
Perhaps the character deals with the fallout better than you did, or at the very least, they offer a different path forward. Exploring trauma from this secondary level of distance and imagination can allow players and survivors to feel empowered in those moments in ways that weren’t when those events initially occurred.
It is important to remember as facilitators for both gaming and kink that we are not health care professionals and that our scope of care is not the same as that of a trained professional therapist. However, in tandem with therapy, good communication and boundaries in place, kink and gaming can be healthy outlets and places that foster safe exploration of trauma as we heal and grow on the other side of our traumas.
*Due to the nature of their work, CK asked that I use a pseudonym for them in this article.