Can a Video Game Help Rape Survivors?

An upcoming Oculus Rift experience tracks a character's recovery following a sexual assault—aiming to enable empathy, even therapy, for survivors and outsiders alike.


When I first happened on Tusmørke's Autumn, it was buried among the hundreds of entries in this year's Independent Game Festival (IGF). The game's page seemed oddly vague, describing it as an Oculus Rift experience dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault, but basically leaving it at that. No named creators, no elaborate website offering more information, not even a Twitter account to follow. It seemed strange for such an ambitious project to fly so far under the radar.

After reaching out to the Tusmørke team, which consists of Copenhagen-based students Marta and Mikkel, I learned why. A couple of months ago, around the same time that IGF set their entrant deadline, the Internet was steeped in culture wars that would make anyone creating a game about empathy and the female experience wary of exposure. "It was such hot water at the time that even having an IGF page felt really scary," Mikkel told me. "It's already a difficult topic to approach," Marta added, "and the climate online being what it was, we had no way of knowing how people would react."

Once the craziness began dying down, however, both felt that "keeping a low profile could also make a big deal out of something that really shouldn't be a big deal." Their work on Autumn emerged from a belief that, although games have the power to deliver human experiences and evoke empathy unlike anything else, the medium's potential remained mostly untapped. In the end, the very events that made the team afraid of exposure also proved just how crucial their project could be.

Tusmørke describes Autumn as "glimpses into a character’s journey during the months following a sexual assault: her struggles with herself and the world around her." The story is revealed in reverse chronology and divided into seasons; it begins with summer, months after the attack and follows the character's transformative recovery and path toward finding a sense of hope. Spring focuses on confronting others, and coping with the feelings of judgement and shame that can too often follow an experience of rape. Winter portrays the deepest moments of despair: fear of leaving the house, constant depression and panic attacks. "Autumn," Tusmørke says, "is when her life is shattered."

Marta first sensed the necessity for an interactive experience like Autumn after talking to a group of her male friends about her own persistent sense of fear in regards to sexual assault. As she tried to explain just how different her daily experiences as a woman could be to theirs—how her male friends didn't have to think twice before walking outside alone after dark—she began to see how words weren't enough.

So, she decided "to make a game to convey this sense of vulnerability, to take people through the looking glass," and provide an experience that communicates the fear and powerlessness inherent to sexual assault. "People have a lot of problems understanding what those who have been attacked go through afterwards," she explained. "The constant consequences: the pity, the shame, the lack of empathy. Understanding their trauma gets obscured by all that noise, and the victims become quiet and paralyzed." First and foremost, both members of Tusmørke saw a dire need "to change the way we talk about rape, remove the stigma, and stop making the aftermath so difficult for victims."

Having once been attacked herself (though she managed to escape the assault), Marta used a combination of her own personal experiences alongside those of friends, filling in the rest with diligent research about post-traumatic stress in rape survivors. "While going through the process, I had to fight my own anxieties and fears," she said. "But it felt important for me to engage in that process—it was cathartic, in a way."

While creating Autumn, Marta and Mikkel kept two different types of players in mind. On the one hand, they hope Autumn enables empathy in those who've never experienced an assault personally. On the other, the game could also potentially serve survivors of the trauma themselves, allowing them to confront and engage with their emotions in a safe environment and on their own terms. From their research, the team found that online communities of sexual assault survivors often suggest lists of books and movies that deal with the subject as part of "emotional trigger therapy." Many found that by deliberately triggering themselves, they not only felt less alone but also gained a sense of control over their trauma, using different media as a way to confront memories rather than try to bury them.

While Tusmørke is interested in the possibility of collaborating closely with a specialist in exposure therapy, it's focusing on development for now. The most difficult aspect of design, the team says, has been implementing its research on the experience of vulnerability in post-traumatic stress into effective metaphors. Not only is vulnerability virtually unexplored in terms of conventional game design, but the specific type of fear Tusmørke aims to emulate proves so personal that the pair often end up second guessing themselves. When Marta came up with the concept of an unending Alice in Wonderland-esque hallway, for example, Mikkel admitted that at first he thought the idea cheesy. "But when we tried it out, it turned out to be more effective than I could've ever imagined."

The team also decided to focus heavily on sound, recreating the sensorial sensitivity of post-traumatic stress. Whenever the protagonist remembers the attack and feels scared, she hears the overwhelming and disempowering sound of it replaying over and over again in her head. As her stress levels rise, the sounds of her heartbeat, breathing, footsteps, and rustling clothes increase to uncomfortable levels. The Oculus Rift has been integral to increasing the player's sense of presence in the situation, the team says. By scaling the avatar down in size whenever she becomes overwhelmed, for example, the player's organic vertigo and immobility emulates a panic attack in a way that only virtual reality could achieve.

In the end, however, the Tusmørke team understands that no matter how precisely they try to design Autumn to emulate the aftermath of rape, the feeling of empathy is a fluid and deeply subjective experience, and different people feel different types of empathy at different times. The successfulness of Autumn as a vehicle for understanding assault depends not only on them as designers and developers, but on the player as well. As they put it, "The ability to elicit empathy depends entirely upon the willingness of the player to engage in the conversation."


Engaging in that conversation by viscerally experiencing what it's like to be a rape survivor will, of course, prove more difficult than many other forms of engagement. But, from the looks of both the trailer and gameplay video, Tusmørke is on its way to creating an affecting narrative that tackles a simultaneously alienating and alarmingly common trauma. However difficult Autumn might prove to stomach, the unexamined prevalence of sexual assault in women's lives should prove even more disturbing. Hopefully, providing people with more opportunities to empathize with a survivor's experience can communicate not only the need for understanding and frank discussion, but also our own power to work towards a solution.

Tusmørke is aiming for a summer release in 2015. You can follow its progress with Autumn through their website.