Bioshock to the System:

How Gaming Reconnected Me With Childhood Trauma

Matthew Wells is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto.  His research interests lie in the realm of digital games, and in particular how games function as expressive media in both social and cultural contexts.  He focuses largely on the early history of digital games, revealing how games are linked inextricably with important advances in computing, from the rise of the display to the emergence of time-sharing networks to the development of sophisticated “interactive programming systems.”

Game scholarship tends to require researchers to assume a detached perspective on their materials of choice.  While our first Nintendo console may have wowed us as children, and while modern games like Fallout 4 may continue to draw us into hours-long play sessions, we have to set aside our emotional relationships with such titles when it is time to get to work.  No academic journal is going to publish an article on how sad The Last of Us made us, or how excited we were to finally vanquish those pesky Aztecs in Civilization.  We might record such responses from others if, for example, we take an ethnographic approach in our research.  But it is our own feelings, and our own affective responses to the games we play, that are often silenced.  But what are we losing by adopting such a perspective?  Game scholars are typically quite experienced players, so could it not be argued that our personal relationships with games and gaming, and the emotional connections we make with the games we play, deserve a place of prominence in any academic conversation on the subject?  Or is it ultimately futile to try and extract useful “data” from our own thoughts and feelings?  Do they even matter?

I ask these questions as a gaming researcher and as an avid game player.  In my work, I largely adopt a historical perspective, focusing on games that emerged within the military-industrial complex of the Cold War-era United States.  As a player, I engage in a variety of genres, from first-person shooter to text adventure.  These two worlds typically do not collide.  Yet while my research matters to me, certain events that transpired a few years ago while I was playing a game that were nothing short of life-altering.  While playing the game Bioshock Infinite, and experiencing the richness of its game world, its characters, its story, and its gameplay, I was able to emotionally connect with it in such a way that it kicked up some long-forgotten memories from my childhood.  I came to realize, once I had begun to process these memories, that I had been sexually abused as a child on at least one occasion. How and why playing the game made me realize this is something I will try to explain here.  

Before I started writing this article, I assumed that I would be able to break down the narrative of my experiences within a logical, nicely academic framework.  After struggling to do this for a while, however, I had to admit that such an approach was impossible.  I could dress up some aspects of the story, as a proper scholar should, but everything broke down because of one fundamental problem: the notion that a video game could help anyone remember childhood trauma is an unproven – and perhaps unprovable – hypothesis at best.  No body of evidence is going to logically lead to such a conclusion.  I have no data with which to analyze.  Instead, I have a jumbled collection of memories and feelings that I connected with while playing Infinite.  I have my story and a game that helped shape it.  

In light of all this, I will present my testimony in a loose, free-flowing structure in which I analyze aspects of Infinite one at a time, in no predetermined order.  Each element of the game that I discuss was part of a larger contextual experience that allowed me to reconnect with the events from my childhood that I had seemingly long forgotten.  I cannot explain why this happened, nor can I truly explain why the past was so unclear to me.  Hopefully what I can do, however, is convey a sense of how Infinite‘s characters, its setting, and its major themes resonated with me, and how they linked specific elements of my past.  This informal approach, I believe, captures the messiness of the experiences that I describe in a way that more typical qualitative data could not.

Let us start with the opening of Infinite, when you first get a look Columbia, that monumental city in the clouds, before you understand its evil foundations.  The musical score is minimal but deeply melancholy.  Everything is floating and magical.  I first saw this scene unfold on YouTube.  I had largely avoided the hype over the game.  In fact, I had not even played the original Bioshock, having taking a sabbatical from most forms of gaming for several years (for reasons that are complex and kind of pretentious).  But I was back to gaming, and when the earliest Infinite reviews came out, I knew it was something worth checking into.  What I did not know, of course, was how deeply it was going to affect me.

I watched that opening many times before I finally broke down and bought the game.  Once I started getting into it, I came to recognize that I was experiencing something much more powerful and overwhelming than the typical first-person shooter.  It is very difficult to convey this properly.  Everything seemed both immensely important and highly unsettling.  I felt like I could not control the rush of sensory stimuli the game was impressing upon me.  This became even more disorienting when Columbia’s frayed reality presented itself — when that barbershop quartet sings that Beach Boys song, and when you first glimpse Elizabeth’s powers.  Everything was so intense, but also so sad.  I could not shake the sadness.  When I finished a play session, I often felt dizzy and even nauseous.  I even suffered what are technically called “olfactory hallucinations,” or “phantom” smells – that is, I would detect a highly-unpleasant, somewhat antiseptic smell in the air that was not actually there.  The real world felt unclean somehow.  These feelings would fade, but would reappear once I started playing the game again.  I knew something was happening.  That is why I kept going back.

Columbia is meant to be a utopia.  But, of course, it is a sinister, broken-down version of someone’s idea of paradise.  It is grand to an unworldly degree, but also rotten at the core.  It is also an escape, a retreat from the seeming corruptions of the world, but one that cannot help but let those corruptions seep in.  In my childhood I was always looking for ways to escape.  I dreamed of places that were clean and good and comforting.  I could never find such a place in the muck of reality, so I invented them in my imagination.  I pictured life in space or in an underground hideout.  Humans were optional.  I believed that robots and other machines were a solid alternative.  Like Columbia, these places I thought about were foundationally unsound.  They were superficially pristine, but they were borne out of a trauma that I did not recognize for what it was until many years later.

And then there is Elizabeth.  Think about what she is doing.  She dreams of Paris while she is trapped in her tower.  She is alone, protected by a mechanical creature that also serves as her jailer.  But after you help set her free, it takes some time for her to truly understand her prior torment.  As far as she knew, her situation was normal.  Similarly, whatever mental health problems I have dealt with since childhood seemed totally normal to me.  If I was more anxious or more depressed than my peers, I chalked that up to divine punishment.  Not that I was overly religious, but you only have to be dragged to church a few times to learn about God’s wrath.  Somehow, I thought, I had been singled out for punishment.  Under the circumstances, my anxiety and depression were an understandable reaction to my predicament.

And then there is Booker himself, who is tormented by events from the past that he cannot even remember.  The game first makes it seem as if Booker has to rescue Elizabeth, but in fact the reverse happens.  Elizabeth frees Booker by taking him through all the events from his past that he had blocked out.  As the player, we experience all of this from Booker’s eyes.  We find out that we are at the centre of events that were set in motion years earlier, and that everything we thought we knew about ourselves was false, or at least vastly incomplete.  Booker is angry and anguished in the game, but he cannot explain why.  Similarly, I have long suffered from destructive tendencies.  I have felt angry at the world and bad about myself and punished myself through a variety of vices.  And never did I expect that these feeling were being generated in part from events I could not quite recall.

Now, try to understand my experience of playing this game.  I am immersed in a magnificently twisted game world.  I play the game for about an hour at a time, then I had to stop and think about something else for a while.  I would return to game a short while later, but I could only go a bit further into it before feeling absolutely consumed by it.  I even go back onto YouTube to watch certain scenes I played through, over and over.  That opening, it was transfixing.  The sad, sad elegance of the place.  Comstock built Columbia to escape the tormented memories of war.  Elizabeth escapes the confines of her prison with her tears.  Everyone is naïve, really.  Their entire world is collapsing in on them, and nobody – not even the player – understands the larger forces in play, at least not until Elizabeth can use her powers to the fullest, and sees everything.

As I discussed earlier, I had previously considered the idea that something traumatic had happened in my childhood.  But somehow playing Infinite provided the roadmap I needed to coherently piece together memories and feelings that I had long buried.  I found myself reflecting back on my earlier intuitions.  That antiseptic smell I mentioned earlier became strongest when I was playing, and when I was stopped playing it wound linger, sometimes for hours.  I thought about all the sad, damaged lives in the game, and how their world was being torn to pieces.  I thought about my own self-esteem, and how it was so fragile, and how I used to escape into my head when I was growing up, and how as I got older and childhood friends had come and gone and I faced a lonely trek through my high school years.  I imagined places that were clean and good and where I could finally fit in.  As I kept playing Infinite, I connected back to that time, and after some introspection I was able to start uncovering the foundational thoughts and feelings that supported my pristine visions.  I felt intense and immense sadness, just like how it was when I was able to see Columbia emerge out of the clouds.

I am still working through all of this.  That is a process that seemingly never ends.  But I have a good handle now on what happened to me, and who the perpetrator was, and when it happened.  The most important thing, however, was to gain a better understanding of myself, and how this trauma has affected me over the years.  While playing Infinite and experiencing its characters struggling with their respective fates, I was able to do that.  I reconnected with an emotional state that I had left behind long ago, but that was always just below the surface, gnawing away.

Academic research is not conducted in a vacuum, as we all know.  Our personalities, thought, and opinions are reflected in our work.  Data is not objective, and analyses and conclusions are contingent.  Despite all this, we often tend to try to wall off our personal experiences when we engage with our research materials.  Our emotions do not rule when we write and publish.  But we are also game players, and we generally believe that video games do matter, and that they can affect us deeply.  Does this come across in our work?  I would like to believe that it does; but by diminishing the personal, we are perhaps overlooking some of the most important stories we could be sharing.  Yet, as the presence of this very website demonstrates, spaces for such discourses do appear to be opening up.  While scholarly rigour will always have its place, I am hopeful that opportunities for us to complement our work with more personal narratives continue to expand.

Image Reference

“Bioshock Infinite Screenshot”