By Gabriella Lowgren
One of my earliest memories is of playing video games. I was sitting on my stepfather’s knee as we played Diablo 2, him on offense and me on potions. His character whirled around the screen, we had decided to play the Barbarian because I was fascinated by his ability to jump, and Gregor was intently focussed on slaughtering the final boss and penultimate evil, Diablo himself.
As he hacked and slashed I dutifully made sure he was high on health and mana, keeping him alive and able to use the Barbarian’s most devastating abilities. After a lengthy battle we defeated Diablo before re-emerging from the basement to find a dinner gone cold on the dining room table, and my mother already in bed.
There would be many nights such as this through my childhood until I was old enough to play on my own. And then? All bets were off as I explored new worlds, consumed diverse stories, saved princesses and defeated epic bosses. Back then things were easier in video games, I didn’t have to worry about the dinner going cold, or my mother growing distant. I had somewhere to escape when our home became hollow. Hollow homes and distant parents, partners and friends — all escapable in video games, where I could be whoever I wanted to be, love whoever I wanted to love, and remove anyone that wanted to hurt me.
Video games didn’t make me many friends at school.
These days, they enjoy widespread popularity, and have a firm foothold in pop culture. Back then this wasn’t the case, especially as a young girl. I was teased by kids and parents alike, and often accused of wanting to be a boy. Unfortunately, this is an attitude that has followed me to this day. Just as both myself and the general perception of video games have evolved, so too has an innate distrust of female players and video game developers. Games might be increasingly seen as art, but women are still challenged on their playing habits and accused of being fake fans.
As I grew up, I was discouraged from pursuing video games as a career by everyone but my stepfather. My interest was questioned, and I was assured by people with no knowledge of the industry that it was meant solely for men.
I couldn’t code, and my art was more traditional than digital, so I took this as a sign to fold my hopes away into the back of my closet. There it joined a pile of skeletons, all my childhood dreams lovingly folded and packed away, collecting dust and quietly forgotten.
I turned to cosplay as a way of expressing my love for video games.
I dressed up as the characters that inspired me, that fed my growth from child to teen. I had never been a particularly pretty little girl, but making and wearing those costumes made me feel strong, which I was told was more important.
I learnt to sew, style wigs, and forge armour so I could better emulate the men and women in my favourite games. Some people enjoyed my craft, saw beauty in my tribute to these characters even though I was remarkably short of it myself. Others challenged my credentials, hounding me with questions over obscure facts pertaining to these characters, and using any lack of information as proof that I was pouring my money and time into making these costumes for an attention I never wanted nor received.
Photos of me were posted on anonymous image boards. People referred to me as fat white trash and went out of their way to snipe photos of me from unflattering angles across convention halls, while friends posted my contact details and home address. What had started as a fun way to pay homage to the media that shaped me, quickly turned ugly. I learnt to live in fear, dread crawling down my spine each time I opened the mailbox, shame curdling in my gut every time I threw away an untouched meal. I became paralysed every time someone would talk to me on the convention floor, heart beating rabbit fast as anxiety forced me to silence, every inch of me terrified that anything I said would be posted about later to be dissected and ridiculed.
I left cosplay behind, let its skeleton join the others.
I travelled, thought that distance and time would heal the wounds instead of making them deeper.
I refused to admit it, but I ran headfirst into an eating disorder. For a time, she was my best friend, she encouraged me to be better, thinner, more desirable. Held me through the night when I shivered in the summer, showed me which parts of my body to run my fingertips across so I could hate them all away.
A year into living in Japan I had a heart attack.
I added travel and adventure to my skeletons’ closet, and when everything seemed grey and stale I received an email. It was from the owner of my stepfather’s company asking me if I had a job lined up after returning to Melbourne. And if not, if I would be interested in interviewing to be a community manager. On a whim I said yes, and a week later I was working in video games.
For the first time, I opened that closet and took a skeleton out. It was as beautiful as I remembered, a little worn down but blindingly white.
I learnt about the industry from the inside. Networked. Made friends. Travelled to conferences around the world with a purpose, delivering talks and connecting to colleagues. But as a creative type, there was an itch that hadn’t been scratched, and I set out to make my own game.
I signed up to Global Game Jam, an annual initiative that puts game developers together for a weekend to create a game. I sourced a talented group and we hit the ground running. We spoke about the kind of game we wanted to make, and inspiration struck me almost immediately. More than half of our team had suffered from eating disorders, and who’s to say we couldn’t make a harrowing gaming experience from something we shared? I did not know if the creation would be cathartic or damaging, but we decided it was worth the risk.
It was a hard weekend. We got little sleep and worked until things stopped making sense, but at the end of it we had created Shrinking Pains, a semi-biographical visual novel that explored anorexia. It didn’t glamorise eating disorders as so much media does, and provided a frank yet profound look into the reality of the disease. We also showed the effect of anorexia on both the sufferer and their support network, because mental illness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The game had stark visuals, an evocative soundtrack, and my words to tell the story.
It wasn’t easy, but it was necessary. And more than anything, it meant something.
Releasing Shrinking Pains was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I knew that if I wanted the game to have any credibility I would have to be clear that it was semi-autobiographical. However, doing so would expose the darkest, ugliest parts of me to the world. I would forever have to take ownership of the worst parts of me, and leave myself open to conversations about a period in my life that was nothing but self destructive.
A month later I released Shrinking Pains as a semi-autobiographical visual novel, and came clean to my family, friends, and the world at large about my anorexia.
Shrinking Pains was a small game made in an even smaller time frame, and yet something about it resonated with people. Sufferers reached out to me, as did those supporting their loved ones with the disease.
It started discussions about the representation of mental health in games and saw me travel the world to talk about that exact topic. This culminated in a moment that would change my life at our industry’s largest conference, GDC. A man approached me the day after my talk and thanked me for making Shrinking Pains. I asked him why it resonated with him, and he said, ‘A friend recommended that I play it. I lost my wife to anorexia, and it helped me realise that it wasn’t my fault.’
I burst into tears, while he gave me one of history’s most awkward hugs. I didn’t know what else to say but thank you, and I knew that I would never be the same. If I could change the course of one person’s life that profoundly, I felt a duty to continue doing so.
Releasing Shrinking Pains was instrumental in my recovery. It let my lay my anorexia to rest, the first skeleton I could bury instead of shelve for later use. Unlike my eating disorder, games were something I could work towards that wouldn’t destroy me completely, that could connect me to others and help them in unexpected ways.
Gabriella Lowgren is a games developer living out of Melbourne, Australia. By day she is a Communications Manager and Narrative Designer at Infinity+2, and by night she makes indie games that explore mental health issues. She is deeply passionate about mental health representation and the way video games can be used to build empathy and understanding in players.