Video Games and Emotional Abuse: Feminist Pedagogies for It’s You: A Breakup Story

It’s You: A Breakup Story. 2018. Designed by BRWarner Studios. Microsoft Windows and macOS. Available on Steam.

by Rebecca S. Richards

Feminists around the world have addressed the pervasive, significant harms of domestic violence (DV) and intimate partner violence (IPV). This article reviews a video game that demonstrates the manifestations and consequences of emotional abuse as distinct from—though often connected to—physical and psychological abuse. Emotional abuse is when an abuser terrorizes, neglects, isolates, rejects, and verbally harasses a person in a cyclical pattern that degrades someone’s emotional and physical health (O’Hagan 1995). A 2014 CDC study shows that 48.4 percent of women experience emotional abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime (Breiding et al. 2011, 10).1

This short essay provides a feminist pedagogical review for It’s You: A Breakup Story—an indie video game that simulates an emotional abuse encounter. In line with queer and feminist game scholars, this piece argues that video games provide interactive experiences that “creat[e] empathy and other strong, positive emotional experiences” (Isbister 2016, xvii). Lasting anywhere from one to thirty minutes, the game potentially engenders empathy and a deeper understanding of how emotional abuse might manifest in an intimate relationship. Since emotional abuse generally leaves no visible marks, unlike bruises and injuries from physical violence, a video game can simulate this elusive and yet damaging form of violence.

It’s You: A Breakup Story is ideal for a variety of classrooms as it requires little experience with video games and no special consoles to play. Because of the nature of emotional abuse and the game’s profanity and misogyny, it should be used with extreme caution, especially if used in a high school classroom. Before playing the game, students should engage two important documents about IPV, the “Cycle of Violence” chart and “Power and Control Wheel,” which show that abuse is not a one-time occurrence but a pattern of actions and behaviors and that this pattern occurs within a cycle of calm, tension, and violence.2

The game opens with a content warning, explaining that it presents what might not be a “comfortable” interaction between Carlee, a woman finishing a long shift as a nurse, and her boyfriend, Josh. Players must respond with a “yes” or “no” to indicate if they are ready for this interaction. Teachers may find this content warning helpful as it provides a mandatory reflective moment for students to consider self-care before continuing.

The entirety of the game occurs at Carlee’s home office desk. A monitor takes up the majority of the screen; however, the rest of the desk is populated with office supplies, personal items, and a smart phone on a digital clock charging station. At the beginning of the game, the clock reads 11:59 p.m. On the computer screen, an internet browser shows five tabs open, three of which provide context for Carlee’s life and what is about to unfold.3 In Tweeter (a riff on Twitter) Mamasa Yi responds to Carlee’s post “What am I even doing anymore?” with the reply “Is everything ok?” Further down the newsfeed, Josh tweets at Carlee, “Working too much. I’ve got something important to tell you call me [sic].” This tweet sets up the context that Josh has publicly asked Carlee to call him. In the WhatsDown tab (an instant messenger app), a female user named Melted writes to Carlee: “everything ok? Just checking in.” Carlee responds, “Yeah, I’m good. Just being dumb.” Melted responds, “k. <3 <3. Let me know if it’s ever otherwise.” Much like the Tweeter post from Mamasa Yi, it is clear that Carlee has friends who sense that something is amiss in her life and are concerned. Finally, Thunder!bang (a fictional email client) provides the most extensive content. Carlee has four unread messages: three are about work, and one is between Carlee and Mamasa Yi with the subject line “RE: RE: RE: How You doin bae?” The three “reply” indicators tell players that this is a long thread, and “bae” indicates that Mamasa Yi and Carlee are close friends. While players cannot access the entire thread, they can read Carlee’s latest reply, which laments about how tired and “burnt out” she is. Carlee mentions that her relationship with Josh began with fun and excitement; Josh would plan excursions and she would only “have to listen to him talk and enjoy the sun.” Clearly something has changed. After this description, Carlee writes, “It’s not him. It’s me. I’m burnt out and being too sensitive. Ugh” and then explains that she doesn’t want to “think about it.” This email appears prominently when the game begins, forcing players to at least look at it before moving on to other areas of the screen.

As players peruse these tabs, the phone rings. Josh is calling. The majority of the gameplay involves how players deal with/manage Josh’s phone calls, and the narrative unfolds differently depending on what players choose. If players ignore the call, Josh will continue to call Carlee at intervals of about 20 seconds. If players decline it, he calls back immediately. If players accept Josh’s call(s), they can respond to what Josh says, hang up on him, and (eventually) block his calls. Although some players might not want to answer Josh’s calls, they must answer the phone at least one time in order to complete the game, but after responding once, players receive the option of blocking Josh’s calls. It is also important to note that at any point during the gameplay, players can end the conversation and eventually the relationship.

Jacob Burgess provides the voice acting of Josh; however, Carlee’s words are never spoken, allowing players to imagine themselves in her role. The dialogue between Josh and Carlee begins rather benignly, as Josh recounts his work stresses. Some players might quickly pick up on Josh’s self-centeredness and interrupt him, hang up the phone, or break up with him. Should players attempt to end the relationship or conversation with Josh, he becomes more insistent and aggressive, using emotional abuse tactics such as minimizing, shaming, gaslighting, and “negging” (subtle negative comments to undermine someone’s confidence) to regain control over the conversation and Carlee’s actions. If players hang up on Josh and block his calls before the abuse begins, they receive an ending that reads “sometimes the only thing to do is not to play.” It’s a thought-provoking ending and statement, but it doesn’t give a complex perspective on how abuse can continue even if someone disengages from an abuser. This ending provides a fruitful contrast to the experience of players who spend more time engaging with Josh. If using this game in the classroom, teachers should discuss the tension between this seemingly-good ending and the more complex realities of abuse.

Some players might opt to engage empathetically with Josh’s stress, which leads them down a more emotionally abusive path as Josh slowly erodes Carlee’s confidence by shaming her for her “issues” and past failures. If players engage in any amount of conversation with Josh, ending the relationship results in Josh slandering Carlee on social media (Tweeter), which prompts excessive emails, IMs, and Tweeter posts. While some of these digital communications express support for Carlee, such support is limited to private communications. The public communications shame Carlee for ending the relationship. One of the strengths of this game is in simulating how technology can simultaneously perpetuate abuse and loving support. Students who have experienced cyberbullying and other online abuse may easily identify with the allure and dangers of digital communications.

Most players will engage with Josh’s phone calls and dialogue enough to get an alternate ending. To hear the entirety of Josh’s dialogue requires players to sit through about thirty minutes of excruciatingly narcissistic and emotionally abusive conversation. While the beginning of the conversation begins innocuously enough, the first dialogue choice players can make provides some insight about what’s to come. When Josh exclaims “What a week!,” players can respond with: “Oh?,” “Yeah?,” or “Same.” The first two allow Josh to continue without interruption. “Same” prompts Josh to respond “Well, then you’ll appreciate this” without acknowledging that Carlee has just expressed that she has had a difficult week. While a very small and perhaps imperceptible slight, it is a pattern that persists throughout the game’s dialogue interactions.

Josh’s desires, obsessions, and sense of grandiosity drive most of the dialogue’s content. He talks about a work project—a health app called Healthvetica—and how he is not supported and understood for his vision. When he isn’t talking about work, he judgmentally talks about his cousin Henry’s upcoming wedding (which he would like Carlee to attend with him). Eventually, he focuses on Carlee’s shortcomings and how he can help her with her “issues.” Depending on how long players endure Josh’s conversation, these topics may recur.

Throughout the dialogue, Josh dominates the conversation and rarely responds to Carlee’s feedback or contributions. When players select a constructive comment for Carlee—something more than “yeah” or “uh-huh”—Josh can either ignore her, “mansplain” (to re-explain, usually lecturing, something about which the woman already knows), become irritated with her, or critique Carlee. For example, when Josh expresses frustration about not having a computer coder for Healthvetica, players can have Carlee helpfully suggest a programmer she knows. With an accusatory tone, Josh asks how Carlee knows this programmer, using the male pronoun “him.” The implicit message is that Josh is jealous. Even if players pick innocuous responses to Josh’s inquiries, eventually he returns to his frustrations and his belief that no one understands his vision, ignoring the fact that Carlee offered assistance for his project.

When talking about Healthvetica, Josh often engages in narrative of martyrdom, grandiosity, and superiority. He recounts how hard his life has been because his parents “didn’t give [him] any money [and he] didn’t have this education passed onto [him]…. [He] worked for it and [he] felt the cost. All those nights awake, alone, battling anxiety.” While on first blush this monologue could be read as an earnest account, it becomes clear that Josh believes he is the only one who has struggled to get ahead in life. This dialogue continuously affirms that he regards himself as an exception, above the “masses” (as he calls everyone other than himself), and misunderstood. The game doesn’t use heavy-handedness to demonstrate what emotional abuse sounds like. Rather, these slight moments add up to show how manipulative emotional abuse can be.

Furthermore, this game succeeds in simulating emotional abuse because it shows how Carlee’s dialogue options—regardless of their kindness, assertiveness, or indifference—cannot end Josh’s abuse. In other words, there is no right or good response, and even ending the relationship results in further abuse and is not an easy choice. Josh’s abuse actually escalates when players attempt to end the relationship or the conversation, which presents the real-world pattern that abusers are most dangerous when an intimate partner attempts to leave. The statistics on this phenomenon are sobering and wide-ranging; for example, a study found that half of all male-perpetuated intimate partner homicides occur within the first two months of separation or ending a relationship (Saunders and Browne 2000). While some might assume that only physically abusive intimate partners engage in homicide, Saunders and Browne’s study shows that intimidation and controlling behaviors are better predictors of intimate partner homicide than “severer violence” (422). While this is one of the most dramatic statistics, other sources show that IPV escalates when a person attempts to leave a relationship.4

In the game, Josh becomes belligerent and more verbally and emotionally abusive if Carlee expresses the problems in the relationship; Josh responds with this tirade:

That’s a fucked up thing to say, Carlee…. Those are just your problems talking. You don’t understand what it is you’re really feeling. You don’t understand what it is you are really thinking. You cannot trust yourself. You have to trust me…. You’re a mess, you know that? A hot, steaming, pile of garbage.

At this point in the game, Josh posts to Tweeter “Breaking up with me RIGHT AFTER I told her I almost got fired from work. I didn’t want to make this public but FUCK #cold.” Immediately, seven other characters tweet a response, chastising Carlee for her timing or responding with misogynistic comments (e.g., “Is it a period thing?”). Meanwhile, Carlee receives private support from friends and coworkers on her WhatsDown messenger. This juxtaposition mimics the real-world experience of leaving an abusive relationship (see Bancroft 2002). While many people will have loved ones support their departure/escape, it often happens privately. Meanwhile, public opinion creates challenges for the person ending the relationship since most people do not know what has been happening in private.

Teaching It’s You is not an easy endeavor as the interactions are painfully realistic. However, for feminist teachers who want to engage the diversity of IPV manifestations, the game provides a concrete example of what emotional abuse can look, sound, and feel like. This form of abuse can be difficult to identify and address, so using this game as a class “text” could help students understand that emotional abuse follows patterns similar to physical abuse.

It is also important to note that the developer, BRWarner, is committed to engaging a broad audience and directly addressing IPV. Therefore, 20 percent of the game’s proceeds go to Atira Women’s Resource Society (a trans-inclusive organization) in British Columbia, Canada. Furthermore, the developer provides online tools for navigating the game’s content. Teachers and players can peruse the game’s dialogue, either through downloadable code files at GitHub or a search engine of the game’s dialogue script called “Did He Say That?” and could use the latter to guide students through a search of key terms or phrases that they identified in their playthrough.

1 Although this study doesn’t have a category for “emotional abuse” in a single table, I identified the characteristics of emotional abuse behaviors that it measures and came up with 48.4 percent.

2 Domestic violence organizations regularly use both of these visual aids, and there are many variations online. For examples of these documents, please see the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project’s “Power and Control Wheel” (accessed May 1, 2019) and Building Futures Free of Homelessness’s “The Cycle of Violence” (accessed May 1, 2019).

3 The other two tabs are Tractor Dad: Civil War (a simplistic tic-tac-toe game) and Toon-ify (a parody of Spotify with tracks players can listen to as they play).

4 One of the best sources about this phenomenon is Lundy Bancroft’s chapter “The Abusive Man and Breaking Up” (2002).. The chapter includes case studies, safety plans, and other important notes that could help students grapple with the challenges and dangers of leaving an abusive relationship.

Works Cited

Bancroft, Lundy. 2002. “The Abusive Man and Breaking Up” in his Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, 210-31. New York: Berkley Books.

Breiding, Matthew J., Sharon G. Smith, Kathleen C. Basile, Mikel L. Walters, Jieru Chen, and Melissa T. Merrick. 2014. “Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization—National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States, 2011.” MMWR Surveillance Summaries 63, no. SS08 (September).

Isbister, Katherine. 2016. How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design. Cambridge: MIT Press.

O’Hagan, Kieran P. 1995. “Emotional and Psychological Abuse: Problems of Definition.” Child Abuse & Neglect 19, no. 4 (April): 449-61.

Saunders, Daniel G., and Angela Browne. 2000. “Intimate Partner Homicide.” In Case Studies in Family Violence, 2nd. ed., edited by Robert Ammerman and Michel Hersen, 415-99. New York: Kluwer Academic.

Rebecca S. Richards is associate professor of English, director of women’s and gender Studies, and affiliated faculty of media studies at Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. She is the author of Transnational Feminist Rhetorics and Gendered Leadership in Global Politics: From Daughters of Destiny to Iron Ladies (Lexington, 2015), as well as other articles relating to gender and sexuality about video games, political discourse, and feminist pedagogy.