By Tenacity Plys
Content Warnings: trauma, addiction, mental health issues.
There aren’t many things in this life that I’ve done for more than 250 hours. Mostly it’s the activities at the core of my being: writing, wandering around Prospect Park, social media stalking people I don’t talk to anymore. And now Hades, the game that gave me carpal tunnel and filled my Twitter feed with X-rated fanart.
It took me about two months of playing Hades before I developed carpal tunnel syndrome from the wrist-mashing action of the game’s combat. The flow state I enter during the game makes me immune to physical signals like thirst, having to pee, and the tingling or stabbing sensations associated with carpal tunnel. Instead of stopping, I now play with braces on my wrists.
For a sense of proportion, there have been times in my life when I wrote 10,000 words a day for the jigsaw puzzle of freelance gigs that made up my income, and I never got carpal tunnel from that. It took fighting the Minotaur to blow out my median nerves that hard. And actually, during a full run of the game you usually have to fight the Minotaur twice.
Carpal tunnel is just one repetitive stress injury associated with gaming, along with “gamer’s thumb” and the flamboyantly named “de Quervain’s Tenosynovitis.” These injuries are the mark of enthusiasm, like a ballerina’s feet, or (more dangerously) the concussions that come from playing football. Medieval monks lost their eyesight from reading by candlelight; history’s first short-sighted nerds. The body is a plant twisting itself toward light, or it’s clipped like a bonsai tree.
Engaging with something physically (or tricking your brain into thinking you are) makes it feel more real to you. Books metaphorically take you to another world, but games literally do. When I play, I am Zagreus. I’m not literally holding a sword, but it’s my body’s movements that control his sword. I don’t call it his sword while I play; I call it my sword. I don’t even refer to the Zagreus on the screen as Zagreus. I’m fighting the Minotaur, I’m entering Tartarus, oh fuck oh shit I’m about to die.
Since just imagining something happening affects your brain in almost the same way as the real thing, a simulated world in which you have clear physical agency must psychologically register as real. That was the whole point of Spy Kids: 3D, and also of Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message.”
Carpal tunnel happens when you chronically irritate your median nerve with the same movements and positioning—it’s called a repetitive stress injury. Physical repetition doesn’t just erode your body’s more fallible parts, it creates muscle memories and intuitive knowledge by wiring both your neurons and their activation patterns. It’s like getting calluses on your fingers from playing the guitar. As you may or may not know from experience, usually your fingers are raw and red for a while first.
The way you spend your time becomes part of you; it molds your brain, which is part of your body, and which controls the rest of your body. It becomes one of the physical clues an alien archaeologist might use to reconstruct your lifestyle.
Hades is just the latest experience to become part of my physical fossil record, one more bit of debris in the very crowded geology of my bodymind. I experience acid flashbacks every now and then, my body reacting to the traces of trips that happened years ago. I’m told my pinky is kind of fucked up because of my phone, too—or maybe that’s just from the weight of my copy of Infinite Jest.
Quitting drugs altered my body as much as drugs did. Sobriety is like pulling the plug of a desktop computer and restarting it—everything goes black. Starting up again takes time, and you can lose everything you were working on before. I lost weight, but that’s because I was too anxious to eat a lot of the time, and I noticed my handful of white hairs were multiplying much faster than before.
After restarting my nervous system from scratch, my body almost couldn’t tolerate being out of the house all day for work; I got home and had no energy left. It felt like I couldn’t get enough sleep no matter how much time I spent in bed, and socializing for more than two hours made me feel like my face was stretched so taut over the bones of my skull that I could barely make “normal” facial expressions anymore. It has taken the whole five years for me to be okay again, and I am not okay again.
Next to all the other ways my past has hurt me, carpal tunnel doesn’t even make the top ten, since I can basically make it go away by wearing wrist braces when I type. I wonder if I would prefer not to have been hurt. I wonder what that might feel like, to just...not be hurt. I don’t know if I could really choose that though. Most of my life would be gone, after all.
If my physical being is a record of my experiences, Hades is now written on my body. I have literal writing on my body, a tattoo designed by someone I loved who went on to hurt me. I have experiences written in my memory with the stark ink of trauma, less faded over time than that tattoo. At the end of my life, all I will have is this collection of physically or mentally inscribed experiences, along with my “I Survived The Human Condition And All I Got Was This T-Shirt” t-shirt.
I always see people posting “this destroyed me” or “brb, emotionally recovering” about artwork that has physically affected them by creating emotional responses in their nervous systems. I see people make those posts about Hades! People say these things when they’ve deeply resonated with the art in question, so is it actually good (or at least not bad) for art to hurt? Is writing something on your body in a painful way bad, if you choose it? That’s what a tattoo is.
I know people who have used tattoos to cover up their scars from self harm. Sometimes new wounds can cover up old ones. Maybe that’s what it really means to heal through stories? Though maybe that doesn’t apply to carpal tunnel—just emotional wounds. Maybe fetishizing my own woundedness doesn’t help me heal either my body or my brain (which is part of my body).
When I read The Body Keeps The Score this year (I know, how did I not read it sooner; everyone read it a hundred years ago and I am a full century late to the party), I learned that fixating on one’s trauma is a trauma symptom. Trauma fixes you in place and time, making the story of your life seem like it begins and ends with your wounds. In fact, most of the characters in Hades have some major loss or wound that Zagreus has to help them move past—he’s not just the Underworld’s greatest warrior, he’s also the Underworld’s only shrink.
When you meet Orpheus for the first time in Hades, he’s refusing to sing for Hades because he’s too devastated by the loss of Euridice. You can talk to him as many times as you want; you just get different one-liners about “ah, my sweet Euridice, forever lost!” or “how can I give song without my muse to inspire?” He’s a broken record. My poor goth son.
Since every Hades character’s problem is basically that they’re estranged from someone and need to reconcile with them, it’s not so hard to solve their problems. Zagreus finds that everybody actually wants to start talking to their ex again, and plays go-between to make it happen. It’s harder when what you’ve lost is more intangible, more irretrievable, than a person—or just as intangible and irretrievable as a person.
Sometimes processing emotions is an excuse for wallowing in emotions, and that’s basically the story of my life. If I’m so determined to both escape my emotions and forever dwell on them through story that I’m burning out my median nerve, maybe I should have told my therapist about this instead of writing an essay, or playing this gay roguelike game. My therapist might say I owe it to myself to write care on my body, instead of half-gleefully chronicling all the times when I and others have written worse. Since re-membering old pain is re-living it, it may chronically irritate those wounds rather than healing them. (Forgive my Anne Carson-style word dissection.)
Since I started writing this essay, I actually found out that my eyesight is degenerating faster than average for someone who wears glasses, because I look at my phone too much and read for long periods of time without looking away from my book. To keep my eyes from straining, I’m supposed to look out my window for twenty seconds, every twenty minutes or so. This makes my eyes use their far-away-things muscles and rest their close-up-things muscles. Maybe that’s what my irritated nervous system needs—a change in focus every now and then. It may be hard to make myself do that for 250 hours, but maybe by hour 10 I will already inhabit a body that’s more willing to heal.
Tenacity Plys (xe/xir) is a nonbinary writer based in Brooklyn, with previous publications in Alien Buddha, WordGathering, Pif Magazine, and BlazeVOX. Xir short story “I Love My AI Son” will be included in Alien Buddha’s Best of 2022 anthology.
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