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A video game to help people cope with grief

Author: Sue Boucher
25 April 2017

Amy Green explains the development of a videogame that attempts to share an unspeakably hard but also joyful time of their lives and hopes that the game can bring some understanding and healing to others.

In a recently released TED Talk by Amy Green, entitled, A video game to cope with grief Amy describes how the journey she and her family have experienced through grief at the life, illness and eventual death of her son, Joel, led to the creation of the video game, "The Dragon, Cancer". The video game recently won an award for impact at the Game Awards, one of the video game industry's biggest nights. 

She says, "Fortunately, I never did have to finish that bedtime story. My children outgrew it. Joel responded better than anyone expected to palliative treatment, and so instead of months, we spent years learning how to love our dying child with all of our hearts. Learning to recognize that shameful feeling of holding back just a little love to try to spare ourselves just a little pain somewhere further down the road. We pushed past that self-preservation because Joel was worth loving even if that love could crush us. And that lesson of intense vulnerability has changed me ... more than any award ever could.

We started living like Joel could live, and we began developing a videogame called "That Dragon, Cancer." It was the story of Joel. It was the story of hope in the shadow of death. It was the story of faith and doubt, and the realization that a wrestle with doubt is a part of faith — maybe the biggest part of it. It was a story that began as a miracle and ended as a memorial. 

When you play "That Dragon, Cancer," you're transformed into a witness of Joel's life, exploring an emotional landscape, clicking to discover more of what we as a family felt and experienced. It feels a little bit like analyzing interactive poetry because every game mechanic is a metaphor, and so the more the player asks themselves what we as designers were trying to express and why, the richer the experience becomes. 

We took that vulnerability that Joel taught us, and we encoded the game with it. Players expect their video games to offer them branching narrative so that every decision that they make feels important and can change the outcome of the game. We subverted that principle of game design, collapsing the choices in on the player so that they discover for themselves that there is nothing that they can do that will change the outcome for Joel. And they feel that discovery as deeply and desperately as we felt it on nights when we held Joel in our arms praying for hours, stubbornly holding out hope for a grace that we could not create for ourselves.

We'd all prefer to win, but when you discover that you can't win, what do you value instead?"

Amy recognises that people may be surprised by their choice of sharing their story of terminal cancer through a video game. To those who feel this way, she says, "Well, tell that to any paediatric cancer parent that's ever taken an exam glove and blown it up into a balloon, or transformed a syringe into a rocket ship, or let their child ride their IV pole through the hospital halls like it was a race car. Because when you have children, everything is a game. And when your young child experiences something traumatic, you work even harder to make sure that their life feels like a game because children naturally explore their worlds through play. While cancer can steal many things from a family, it shouldn't steal play.

Hard to play
She goes on to say, "We made a video game that's hard to play. It will never be a blockbuster. People have to prepare themselves to invest emotionally in a story that they know will break their hearts. But when our hearts break, they heal a little differently. My broken heart has been healing with a new and a deeper compassion — a desire to sit with people in their pain, to hear their stories and try to help tell them so that they know that they're seen.

We made a video game that's hard to play. But that feels just right to me, because the hardest moments of our lives change us more than any goal we could ever accomplish. Tragedy has shifted my heart more than any dream I could ever see come true."

Watch the TED Talk here.

This article originally appeared on the International Children's edition of ehospice

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