Genese Davis, and her book, The Holder’s Dominion show how virtual worlds can hold the key to real-life healing.

Online gaming, particularly MMOs like World of Warcraft, tends to get a reputation as a time sink (much like gaming as a whole). Many gamers know personally, however, that our relationships with games can become quite intimate, even when compared to other media: tens, hundreds of hours poured into a favorite game or franchise transforms it into a friend, a confidant, a brand new world complete with its own language, rules, friends, and enemies. Sometimes that new world becomes a necessity for surviving in the “real world,” a coping mechanism that gives us a sense of agency, purpose, and power again. Genese Davis touches on this power of gaming in her 2013 novel, The Holder’s Dominion. I met her at Wizard World Portland, and recently talked with her about the novel and some of its underlying themes.

The Holder's Dominion - Cover

You can see the influences of Davis’ game of choice, Final Fantasy XI, in the brightly-colored world of Edannair, the fantasy MMO in which half of The Holder’s Dominion takes place. Davis’ novel centers around Kaylie Ames,   a girl who loses her father to a hiking accident and flees to UT-Austin for college to escape her crumbling family and the memories of the death. Kaylie, and her “alias,” Loxy, dig deeper into the game’s world, fighting to confront The Holder, the mysterious head of the elite team known as Sarkmarr. The Holder wields godlike in-game powers, but devastates in the real world as well: in order for Sarkmarr members to climb the ranks, The Holder requires that they complete a “morphis:” a real-world quests that is often embarrassing, illegal, and/or dangerous. Kaylie, determined to break The Holder’s grip on Edannair, fights to climb the ranks of Sarkmarr to face him personally. Even though the lion’s share of the book’s action takes place in the game, Genese wants readers to find more in the book than just an exciting action novel.

Though Loxy encounters her fair share of trouble, Kaylie also deals with real-world struggles that flow in and out of the book’s narrative. Back home in Tacoma, Kaylie’s mother becomes a ghost of her former self when her husband dies, and Hunter, Kaylie’s younger brother, vanishes for days at a time from the house. Meanwhile, in Austin, Kaylie manages a social life with friends while taking on morphises and helping her Sarkmarr friends, some of which suffer real anguish from their morphis assignments and failures. ”I wanted the reader to feel like, you know, this is a bigger story than just going after a hacker or being a part of a game,” Genese told me. “I wanted to be able to reach people who are also going through grief or trauma or trying to heal from different interactions in life…we all feel that, we all feel those moments where we’re challenged or broken down to the point that we feel we can’t go on. I mean, that happened to me. Five or six years ago, I felt that way.” She continued on to say more, though she didn’t go into detail about the event itself. “I felt like, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to keep living,” because I’d survived some pretty traumatic and violent acts that just left me…honestly, afraid to leave the house. I couldn’t bring myself to go grocery shopping or walk my dog anymore…I felt like there was no end, like I was going to be a recluse the rest of my life.”

In The Holder’s Dominion, Kaylie’s gaming almost acts as a tribute to her late father: her success in Sarkmarr pays homage to his competitive spirit and love of games of all kinds. Games give us a world to experiment in, a place to where we can learn resilience and gain masteries we might not have obtained otherwise. For Genese, it wasn’t just playing in a game world that helped her overcome her tragedy: she made one as well in the world of Edannair. “I got to pour in through him…make it almost cathartic, to hopefully reach out to anyone else feeling that way and go, ‘Hey, this is how Kaylie is going to overcome her trauma,” she said. “It was really a healing thing for me to write Holder’s because I used so many personal experiences sprinkled in there, whether through the game aspect, or her real-life storyline.”

Genese Profile

Today, Genese travels on the Wizard World circuit conducting panels and speaking with hundreds or thousands of people, but she didn’t always know she wanted to make a career in games. After digging deep into Final Fantasy XI back in 2002, she discovered that the world of online gaming offered experiences that broke many of the conventional stereotypes she’d heard from friends. “I was forming these bonds…I basically felt like I had a second family,” Genese said. Later on, as she recovered from her attack, gaming gave her an environment where she could learn to be around people again. She said:

“I’ll put a real-life party on hold because I have a commitment to my raid…and it doesn’t have to be gaming; you could have a passion for golf or poker or what have you…we form these tiny bonds, these tiny allegiances to these fun, yet sometimes really serious hobbies, and it changes us, it molds us.

To me, it’s fascinating how it happens to our personalities and our brains, and how I could go from struggling to speak to a group of one or two to being on these panels and speaking in front of thousands of people. I never dreamed that I would be able to recover, heal to that point that I would have the confidence to get out there and speak and now, here I am! It was through gaming and through writing that I was able to build these building blocks to becoming a public speaker, it just blows me away.”

Trauma is a peculiar thing: it damages in unpredictable ways, and rears its head in the least expected places. In the book, The Holder’s “dominion” isn’t limited to the in-game world: the pain he inflicts on others takes place in the real world, and regardless of the benefits Sarkmarr members perceive in the aftermath of the experience, the pain inflicted by the Holder is transformative. In reality, when a “Holder” inflicts pain on someone, those effects can ripple through the victim’s life in devastating ways. Even so, people like Genese, by doing her work and creating art, show that the Holders of world don’t have to win the game in the end regardless of the power they wield.