Games Are Healing My Dumb Brain – How Bit Bash Gave One Artist a Community

Content warning: discussing of trauma and its effects.

In early September of 2014, I was standing outside of a Threadless warehouse with a friend that had invited me to Chicago’s newest indie games festival. This was Bit Bash’s first year, and it was aiming on creating a community-focused, inclusive space to showcase local and international games alike. I had no idea what to expect, and they had no idea how many people would show up.

It was packed.

My dear friend and I were wise to have arrived over an hour early. The line soon snaked around the block, full of excited attendees that were eager to see what this new team of volunteers had to offer. Just behind us in that line were game students from Columbia College Chicago, the college I had just transferred to, and several of them would be my classmates. I am still in close touch with many of those specific people, and we support each other to this day. Before I had even gotten in the door, I had been introduced to friendly faces in a new city and school. Before I even had a ticket in my hand, Bit Bash started to make Chicago feel like home. Yet, I have to give some history to explain how this saved me.

While I was a junior in high school around 2011, I started to have scarring, traumatic nightmares. I’ll spare you the details, but they often included watching deaths of family members, public shaming, and abuse. I did not understand where they came from, nor that they were far from ‘normal.’ At first, it only happened once or twice every few weeks, but this quickened until it occurred almost every night on and off for a few years. Simultaneously, I was struggling with clinically diagnosed and medicated depression and anxiety. My sleep quality was garbage. I started to mix up what was dreams or not, and reality felt like a blurry line that I one foot on either side of. I still struggle with this, mixing up what has really happened with what I see in my sleep. It was hard to focus on anything other than drawing, which served as an escape. I released my fear through my art, but it wasn’t that I was making really dark illustrations or anything. The way that pencil felt against paper was just…calming.

I initially went into a prestigious Industrial Design program at University of Cincinnati in August 2012. I had discovered concept art in high school and wanted to follow in the tracks of masters like Syd Mead, George Hull, and Feng Zhu, all of which had studied industrial design. I figured it was a pattern, and it ended up working well. Anyways.

It was rigorous but kept me relatively distracted from the recurring nightmares and building anxiety for a while, until I watched a movie that changed everything.

I won’t specify the movie that it was in order to retain some privacy, but it triggered the realization of an intense trauma that had occurred right around when the nightmares started. It was like a light had been turned on in a part of my brain that had been dark, and an indescribably intense, instinctive terror flooded me. Paranoia seeped into every second of my life, so much so that it was hard to leave my dorm at times because I was so afraid of strangers. I either slept 12 or 4 hours at a time, but I was scared to fall asleep at all. I started hallucinating at night and seeing monsters in the shadows of my room. Eventually, I started going to on-campus counseling and psychiatry appointments. I was put on better medications and slowly worked myself up into very lightly talking to psychologists about what happened. Other dark times in my teens were realized to be tied to the trauma-induced event, including attempting to walk into a freeway and frequent depression-induced recklessness. The puzzle pieces were coming together, but my mind felt like it was burning every time the curves lined up. I hated it. I still do.

After 3 semesters in Cincinnati, I decided that I wanted to switch into a video game-specific program. Columbia was one of the strong (and cheapest) options within 6 hours from home, but I was encouraged to take a semester of gen ed classes back at home in Indiana to save some cash. I agreed and moved back into my parents’ house that December, but didn’t look for a local therapist. I couldn’t sleep in my own bed because of the time in my life it reminded me of. I slept on a couch for most of those 8 months. It felt like I had taken 3 steps backward.

In February 2014, another big change happened: our health insurance changed and my medications weren’t covered. Still deeply struggling, I didn’t take the initiative to find new medication or even tell anyone about the problem. I foolishly went cold-turkey, and I still don’t know why I did. Everything in my mind that was bad, over the next 3 months, became exponentially worse. The muddy floor of the hole that I was stuck in completely fell with me into nothingness.

That May, in the middle of a rainy work shift at a local garden center, I hit bottom and called my mom to say that I was scared of myself and needed help. She picked me up and drove me to the local adult inpatient psychiatric care, where I voluntarily admitted myself and spent the following 3 days. I cannot describe how frightening it was as a 19 year old girl. Drug addicts screamed while coming down from bad highs. A man was restrained after flipping a table. A woman asked me why we had the same tattoos, which we didn’t. Nurses came to me later and told me not to talk to her anymore. I drew the whole time.

Once released from inpatient, I was placed in about 10 weeks of intensive outpatient care. This was mostly 15–30 hours per week of group therapy, which was not an appropriate setting to discuss trauma, hallucinations, or nightmares. I started having anxiety attacks, some of which I have no recollection of, only physical scars. At one point, doctors told me to go back into inpatient. I had no desire to, so I focused harder on getting better. We tried a better medication combination. I talked out anxieties in group sessions. I was still struggling at the end of outpatient, but I was slowly feeling better.

Every day of those months in Indiana was spent with my eyes on my future in Chicago. I lived in Indy for 8 months, but never unpacked my boxes or slept in my normal bed. I was desperate to exist and move into a new space. It was the only thing that kept me pushing forward and clinging to hope, so I needed it to be perfect. I needed to find a place to feel safe, and I needed to find a community to call home.

I moved into my Chicago apartment on July 29th that year and spent most of the following weeks settling into my immediate vicinity. Pretending to be an extrovert until I got used to it was the only way I was social enough to make some buds, and that’s how I found myself waiting outside the doors of the first Bit Bash. Finally, in the beautiful 85 degree, sunny Saturday, those doors opened, and it was there that I experienced the most pure joy that I felt in months, if not years. I can remember who I met in line. I can remember the sun and the breeze. By taking the huge risk of starting a festival, the organizers and community sent me a message that I desperately needed:

The pain of the last few months were worth it, and finally, I was genuinely happy to still be here.

I’ve now volunteered at all Bit Bashes (and Itty Bitty Bashes) following that first one. This year, I was a shift captain and showcased my first indie game. It was awesome.

The healing power of fellowship is a boundless resource. When passionate people come together, when we’re kind and excited with one another, deep wounds can scar over. Optimism becomes contagious, and the validation of things that we love together is beautiful. There are many stories like mine that end in healing through community. By supporting or leading your local events, you support attendees that are hurting and need encouragement. Just by participating, your time or resources go into incredible adventures that bring us together. By getting involved, you’re helping people like me heal.

To every single person that has been involved in Bit Bash — from the organizers that got it started to the attendees whose ticket purchases made it possible- thank you. Every person that just shows up is actively creating a unique sense of fellowship that other events can’t emulate. So please, go out of your comfort zone. Take a Saturday to participate in your local IDGA meet-up. Volunteer at inclusive cons. Grow and participate in our community, and maybe you’ll help someone get through their struggles.

Depression, anxiety, and the other things I’ve wrestled with don’t just go away. You can’t kill these creatures — you can only restrain them with healthy habits or sedate them with medication. Eventually, something will probably happen that will let them loose, and I’ll feel their claws dig into me again. It hurts every time, and no previous healing or progress can fully change that, but I’ll be ready. My family is bigger now, and I know exactly where I belong.

Becca Hallstedt is a concept & texture artist residing in Chicago, IL. She has worked at Netherrealm Studios on Injustice 2, at High Voltage Software on Dragon Front and Damaged Core, and on a slew of smaller projects. She loves nothing more than to immerse herself in the city and game dev community to further and diversify her experience as a developer.

Article originally published on Medium — reprinted with author’s permission.