The Games I Fear to Play: Reflecting on the Personal in Games

I think I backed That Dragon, Cancer shortly after its Kickstarter went live in 2014. The game is a memorial of sorts to Joel, a son lost to cancer at a very young age.

I must have known about my brother-in-law’s bladder cancer diagnosis by then. I must have. But for the life of me, I can’t remember how I found out. I know I walked with him at a bladder cancer awareness walk in May of earlier this year. We were Team Paul, as we supported him at the race, all of us decked out in orange t-shirts supplied by the organizers of the event. He got to wear a special “Survivor” badge, proudly displaying his membership in a group that he never imagined he’d join.

I know it sounds strange, even inappropriate, but I remember feeling brave that day. At some point, I put Paul’s cancer out of my mind. Confronting the reality of someone in my family, still in their thirties, fighting cancer, was too much. So I put it away, wherever personal things go when we want them hidden. You know the place.

I suspect when I get to play That Dragon, Cancer sometime next year, that secret place will be laid bare.

I’m always amazed at games that delve deep into personal experiences. Papo & Yo, a small game about a child and his alcoholic father, sprung from Lead Designer Vander Caballero’s own paternal relationship. In a 2011 interview, Caballero explained that “what is more important as a human is that you are able to tell your story, no matter how painful it is, because by telling it, you actually free yourself.” When brave enough to venture into the personal, games can uncover the stories we even hide from ourselves.

The discomfort many experienced while playing Nina Freeman’s recent semi-autobiographical game Cibele may stem from Freeman’s audacious exploration of young love. The candid aesthetic of the game naturally reminds us of our own past mistakes, the way we fumbled around in the dark in pursuit of ourselves.

For all the talk of flow in games, the ways in which we can lose ourselves in immersive interactive experiences, they can also do a damn good job of instigating self-reflection.

Of course, it’s reasonable to entwine personal feelings with games. We assign meaning to our actions, even at play, when we think ourselves most free.

When I was still in high school, I would bring my Playstation 2 over to Paul’s house, and we would set up crazy games of SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals. My sister would play, too! On many occasions we would have up to six televisions hooked up, all PS2s connected to the internet, playing SOCOM together. We worked together like experts. We’d shout out enemy locations, relaying information, huddled together around those televisions that we had set all around us on the floor. Those were unforgettable gaming moments.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of Paul’s support for what at the time I considered a nerdy hobby. A big gamer himself, it was encouraging to see someone who could grow up without leaving gaming behind. Of course, Paul also cheered me on when I first started blogging and podcasting about games. My sister was probably weirded out when she first heard my voice coming from Paul’s speakers, but I suspect Paul considered listening to my show as an extended conversation. Every episode was an opportunity to talk about games each time that I visited.

How could gaming not trigger personal reflection? They have been channels for so much camaraderie.

On October 22nd, Paul was admitted to the ICU. He died Monday morning, November 2nd.

That Dragon, Cancer should come out early next year. I’ve never been so scared to play a game.

Ryan Green, Joel’s father and lead designer on the game, had this to say about his effort and his son Joel: “He was the sweetest kid. I can’t really articulate…. I hope to capture some of that, something of who he was and is. In the end, I guess my greatest hope is pretty simple: that players might care about my son the way that I do.”

I think I know how That Dragon, Cancer will make me feel. For now though, I’ll take the games that make us forget. I’ll play the things that distract us from the greatest injustice of life: the price of love is loss.

When I do finally play the game, I hope I’m strong enough to finish it. I hope I have less anger in my heart than I do now. I hope I can find the strength for the personal reflection that I find so valuable in play.