Content Warning: Abuse, Rape, Physical Abuse, Attempted Murder
Animal Crossing saved my life. That’s not hyperbolic.
My ex-boyfriend, over a period of three years, physically and emotionally abused me and tried to end my life twice. It was a surreal and strangely mundane series of events that led me to believe his behaviour was normal. I deserved it and things could never change.
Until, in one of his moments of guilt, he bought me a 3DS.
My best friend had recently purchased Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and I’d quickly fallen in love with the game. I adored the slow pace of life and tranquil existence of my fellow villagers, living happily just by fishing and shaking fruit from trees.
The violence in my life adhered to an almost banal routine. It would occur, sometimes followed by gestures of regret. In this case, a night of heavily coerced sex and anger led to me on my bed, a pair of tights wrapped around my throat, being told “I wish I could kill you, but you aren’t worth it.” The next day, he took me to a local secondhand games store and bought me the 3DS, along with New Leaf.
He could never have known the profound effect that game would have on me and the course of our relationship.
My personal experience with gaming has always been intrinsically connected to comfort, luxury, and safety. I survived the messy divorce of my parents thanks to a secondhand SNES and Donkey Kong Country. My father’s unstable living situation was easy to ignore with a yellow brick Game Boy and Super Mario Land 2. The simple distraction of these small worlds could swiftly remove me from the everyday struggles in the real one.
My personal experience with gaming has always been intrinsically connected to comfort, luxury, and safety.
The security I had found in gaming, like pretty much everything else, had gotten lost in the everyday drudgery of living in such an abusive situation. Until, that is, my avatar hopped off a train and accidentally became mayor of my own little piece of paradise.
For those who have yet to discover the joys of Animal Crossing, it plays like a small scale RPG where you collect fish, fruit, and friends rather than magic or spells. As the mayor of a small village, you spend your days making the town pretty and your villagers happy. You never truly win the game. It’s a retreat, a constant holiday from reality as you indulge in its continuous real time format.
I named my town “Palomar” after the close knit community in my favourite comic book, Love and Rockets. I began to build a new life for myself. My real life relationship had taken its toll. I stopped writing, often missing my own poetry gigs when I wasn’t allowed out of the house. I repeatedly lost jobs for the same reason. But in Palomar, I thrived.
Gradually, my only safe space was inside that small virtual world I’d created for myself within the confines of a used gaming system. Not only was the tone of the game innately calming, but there was a feature within it that provided a truly radical escape: an in-game chat function.
Up until then, nothing in my life was mine. Not my body, not my thoughts, not even my belongings. My things were regularly sold so that he would have whatever he desired, whether food, drugs, or even money to spend on other women. This precedent meant that I had no privacy or agency around anything.
I began to build a new life for myself. My real life relationship had taken its toll. I stopped writing, often missing my own poetry gigs when I wasn’t allowed out of the house. I repeatedly lost jobs for the same reason. But in Palomar, I thrived.
The nature of abuse means that you often end up without the support network that you need to enable to you leave. My phone was under constant surveillance. I was rarely allowed to see friends and family. Playing Animal Crossing suddenly established a brand new mode of communication and created a place that couldn’t be violated or intruded upon.
My phone had always been a constant source of paranoia for us both. I needed to have it on my person, in my pocket, or in my hand. I would put it in my pillowcase at night, my fist wrapped around it even as I slept. I had nothing to hide, but his constant mania around my phone and its potential to trigger violence turned the device into an obsession of my own, an albatross around my neck.
The first time that he tried to kill me was after one of his frequent phone inspections. He found a photo he deemed too suggestive, and two hours later I was unconscious on our front doorstep, naked. He put me in a rear naked choke, a Jiu Jitsu hold. He didn’t stop until the side of my face was a map of broken blood vessels. My arm hung loosely at my side. My back and lower body were covered in huge black bruises from where he knelt on me for leverage.
That was before I had my 3DS. Yes, I stayed with him after that. In fact, I begged him to take me back. The cycle of an abusive relationship can be so hard to understand when you’re outside of it. He was my entire world, and I had no comprehension of how to work outside of the version of us he had created.
The longer we stayed together the more toxic our relationship became, rape and violence becoming daily occurrences. Certain words ceased to exist in our personal language. “No” would dry up on my tongue, nothing but silence by the time it left my mouth. “Sorry” got lost in the swamps of his self-righteous rage. He created a subservience in me that I still to this day cannot fathom.
When you’re in the throes of abuse, one of the first things to go is any semblance of self care. Before meeting my ex, it wasn’t something I’d explored much outside of basic societal expectations: shower, brush your teeth, eat, etc. But in Palomar I would wake up, go into town, choose which clothes I wanted to wear, what colour hair I wanted for the day, and maybe even wear makeup. I became immensely proud of my avatar, with her cool looks and lovely belongings. It didn’t take long for me to start thinking that maybe I deserved to look and feel nice too.
Small things have a way of building up, and slowly the small pleasures I felt within the game began to build me up. I would spend hours taking care of my island, selling fruit, and visiting the small holiday spots with my friends. That also meant hours spent on the chat function, slowly rebuilding the friendships I’d almost lost and my boyfriend was none the wiser.
I watched seasons change in my town, leaf strewn autumns turning into snow capped winters. As I did, my life began to change too. I found a new home with my best friend, a move co-ordinated almost completely through Animal Crossing. I spent as much time there as I could there until I managed to find a room in my very own house, the first place I could truly call my own since I’d left my family at 17.
In Palomar I would wake up, go into town, choose which clothes I wanted to wear, what colour hair I wanted for the day, and maybe even wear makeup. I became immensely proud of my avatar, with her cool looks and lovely belongings. It didn’t take long for me to start thinking that maybe I deserved to look and feel nice too.
In Animal Crossing there are no bosses, but before I could really complete the game I had to beat one of my own. Though I’d found my own space to live and discovered an appreciation for self care, I’d failed to completely separate myself from this toxic man. Through a mixture of coercion and lies, he convinced me to let him back in. Afraid and still embroiled in the cycle of abuse, I decided to let him stay. It was a decision that almost cost me my life.
That whole month smells of smoke. My life became one of constant threat interspersed with regular visits to the emergency room. I couldn’t even escape him where I worked. He would turn up daily to the cafe that I managed, waiting for me to finish my shift.
In the weeks leading up to our final altercation, he was slowing siphoning off my belongings. To this day, I still find things missing that I later realise were stolen and sold by him. One of the first things to go was my 3DS. He made me sell it at a local pawn shop to get money for drugs. I didn’t want to see Palomar go, but I knew that holding onto my virtual town wouldn’t be worth the punishment he would inflict upon me.
I sometimes wonder if violence is an addiction you can never truly cure. That once someone puts their hands on you, you should lock yourself away as you would a bottle of booze. There is no such thing as an ex-abuser. I made him leave. I was emboldened by my friends who told me that if I didn’t, I would die. He tried his best to make that warning become a prophecy.
After being tricked by another of his false medical emergencies, I visited him at a mutual friend’s apartment. When he ran a knife over my throat, I told him to kill me. In the moment after my response, I attacked. Though he managed to throw me to the ground, that got the knife away from my neck. I never saw him again.
Nine months ago, I got a job at a comic shop in London. After years of supporting others financially and never being able to justify spending money on myself, I suddenly found I had a bit to spare. I began to enjoy small things, like buying myself coffee on the way to work. Eating out alone. Buying a new book. Just as I had in New Leaf, I was slowly learning to live at a pace which suited me.
When I got my first paycheck, I bought myself a gift. Something to remind me to always live life the way I want, surrounded by the people I love and doing the things that make me happy. Something to remind me that sometimes it’s the smallest things that can change your life…
…a Nintendo 3DS XL Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer Edition.