Learning to Breathe

That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games, 2016)

It’s a strange and frustrating experience, trying to teach someone to play a game. You think about movements that have long become unconscious, a bit like trying to describe the exact mechanics of breathing.

“Why don’t you click ‘new game,’ Dad?”

The camera flies through a forest and settles behind a duck on a pond. My dad’s at my laptop, and I’m sitting by his side. He stares at the screen with his arms crossed, as if he’s watching a movie. He’s in his 50’s. He doesn’t play games.

“Try moving around with the mouse.”

His right hand grips the comically undersized wireless mouse. His left arm is still across his chest. The camera swings wildly about. On the shore is an origami-like model of a young boy throwing bread into the water. My dad is facing the wrong way.

“You have to click, Dad. When you look in the right direction, a little icon will pop up. That means you can click it.”

So he clicks. The duck moves across the water to the chunks of floating bread. My dad says he getting dizzy. He also says that you shouldn’t feed wild ducks. There’s a voiceover that explains the little boy’s name is Joel and that he’s sick. Not just sick with a cold or a fever, but seriously sick, the kind of sickness that requires months and years of hospital treatment. None of this is entering my dad’s head, I’m pretty sure. He keeps clicking.

Like most games, in That Dragon, Cancer the screen narrows and becomes letterboxed during a cutscene. The screen fills up when you’re back in control as a signal to the player to start playing again. It’s the sort of thing that I never would’ve noticed unless I watched someone not notice it. At this point, my dad is spamming the left click button, regardless of whether he’s in control. He walks along a path to a playground. Joel’s dad, Ryan, ponders what his son thinks of him.

“Do you understand what’s going on?” I ask. He smiles, like he does when he’s confused. “I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying. I’m just trying to get around.”

Eventually, he reaches the end of the level. The camera swings up and above the forest, over an ocean, past a lighthouse, and comes to a stop at a hospital. My dad’s had enough. He feels nauseous and his blood pressure is rising. “Why couldn’t they just tell this story as a book or a movie?” he asks. I ask if he has any other concluding thoughts.

“This game, it’s a waste of time,” he says. “Who wants to play it?”


Most everyone plays games these days. The ESA says 155 million Americans play games, or nearly half the population; 44 percent of all game players are female, and 27 percent of all players are age 50 or older. Perhaps in response to the still-pervasive stereotype that “gamers” are primarily adolescent males, the ESA points out that “women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (33 percent) than boys age 18 or younger (15 percent)."

Most everyone plays games, in the same way that most everyone watches TV, or movies, or reads books, or browses the internet. But there’s something fundamentally different about playing games from consuming other forms of media. There’s a difference, I’d argue, between firing up Neko Atsume a few times a day, as my mom does, and playing something like, say, Hotline Miami.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to bring up noxious distinctions between “casual” and “hardcore” gamers or to police what it means to be a “real” gamer. What I’d like to point out is that playing games requires technical skills and that those skills can be incredibly hard to learn.

I remember trying to teach my friend to play Hotline Miami. She had a few apps on her iPod Touch -- your Doodle Jumps and Cut the Ropes and whatnot -- but had never played any “real” games, whatever that meant. So she sat down at my laptop, and I sat by her side. It’s a strange and frustrating experience, trying to teach someone to play a game. You think about movements that have long become unconscious, a bit like trying to describe the exact mechanics of breathing.

Your left hand is on the keyboard, I said, and your right hand is on the mouse. Make a sort of triangle with your ring, middle, and pointer finger and rest them on the A, W, and D keys. This is your body. Try moving the mouse around. See how you look around the level. This is your head. Now move.

She got through a few levels before giving up. I’ll admit that I wasn’t the best teacher. She could move with the WASD keys and look around with the mouse, but crucially, she couldn’t combine the two. And why should she? How do you explain how to control a person with your fingertips? How do you translate analog bodily movements into their imperfect, digital equivalent? All her perfectly reasonable questions (“Why are these men all dressed identically? Why are they just walking around in circles with baseball bats and pipes? Why am I killing them in the first place?”) had only one answer, one that I had learned to accept a long time ago: Because Video Games.


Brendan Keogh wrote about learning how to play games as a kid. He compared it to learning a language. “We need to destroy the myth of the ‘natural’ gamer and instead show that videogames are a language -- a kinesthetic language that doesn’t just require a skill, but a kind of physical literacy” ("Gaming Grammatically", Unwinnable, 24 January 2013).

When we watch movies, we learn how to watch movies. We learn how to identify the protagonist, to identify the central conflict, to essentially parse the audiovisual text that’s presented to us. Cinematic literacy -- along with, you know, plain old literacy -- is a purely mental effort. Games require both physical and mental effort: the body and the head. It can be hard to combine the two and even harder to teach someone how.

Because of this barrier, video games are still outside mainstream culture, no matter how much progress that they’ve made over the years. Amy Green, co-director and writer of That Dragon, Cancer, spoke at this year’s GDC about the huge amount of press her game received. She said, “The fact that the world sees That Dragon, Cancer as novel just shows that outside of this room, outside of this conference of your peers, people still don't understand the potential of video games” (Megan Farokhmanesh, "That Dragon, Cancer Dev: We Didn't Do Anything Groundbreaking", Polygon, 17 March 2016).

My dad doesn’t understand games. Maybe he never will. He’s okay with that, and so am I. Games are getting weirder and more inclusive and more willing to tackle difficult subjects, but there’s still a long way to go. There are new languages to learn and to teach and new players who are willing to learn them.

There’s a New Yorker cover that shows two young girls. The room is strewn with dolls and books and knickknacks. Out the window is a pointedly gorgeous spring day. They’re staying indoors, playing Minecraft on their computers. Their screens contain new worlds, new experiences, new stories waiting to be told. All they have to do is click New Game.





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