playing the experience of cancer

I don’t know where to begin in writing about this, but this won’t be all of it. Radiolab’s “The Cathedral” (a condensed telling of a story done by Reply All of the same title) introduces Ryan and Amy Green, parents to a young child, Joel, with terminal brain cancer. Ryan and Amy are creating a video game as a way of processing their experience of Joel’s cancer. Ryan, a computer programmer, recalls the moment the idea came to him: the worst night of Joel’s illness, sick with a stomach bug, Joel wouldn’t stop crying. He was in pain, dehydrated, and throwing up; Ryan could do nothing to help ease his discomfort. Ryan felt helpless; Joel’s crying got more and more frantic, he hit his head against his crib’s walls. In that moment, Ryan prayed and Joel stopped crying. Ryan described a moment of grace in what was otherwise overwhelming helplessness.

And beyond just sheer relief, Ryan had this other thought. Frankly, a weird thought. This whole ordeal reminded him of a video game. Like, you have to get the baby to stop crying, so you keep trying things: give him juice, bounce him, talk to him…But the weird thing is, in this awful game, none of those things actually work. They’re all like, fake choices. Ryan thought, what if I could make a game like this? Where you, the player, you don’t really have control? Can I bring you to that place, the place that I’m in right now?

There’s a lot of coverage/exploration of this game and the family and experiences that created it to spend more time reading/watching/listening/playing (with my next paycheck I’ll download and play the game myself), including a documentary Thank You for Playing.

But for now I am so deeply hung up on this idea of playing the experience of cancer—that a video game is the medium of not just telling a narrative, but experiencing. I can tell the events of that last night/morning:

We finally realized that the painful fits/episodes my mother was having were not her body on the verge of passing, but violent seizures that had gone on days. Fits of calm breathing shallow near ceasing and sudden gulp inhalations that made you jump out of your skin to hear. The sound of her teeth cracking. The yellow lightbulb of the lamp that stayed on all night near her bed, tucked in the corner of the living room and the christmas lights strung on the wall opposite (we had Christmas in July). My grandmother’s crying as she restlessly slept on the couch next to her bed. My father’s sunken eyes. With the coming of the hospice nurse to deliver anti-seizure meds, we turned off the home movies running in the background. The nurse closed the IV fluids and took off the oxygen tube. We closed the blinds and turned off the lights. For hours my grandmother and father held her hands and sang to her as whispers, as I tried to recall any artist or album ever to play. In the few moments my grandmother went to make coffee and my father stepped away to use the restroom, she as she then left. It was only me crying on her stomach that she was not her body.

Like this event/moment(s), I can tell others. But I can’t tell my experience. Even if I was a more gifted writer, not even with photos or video captured, or if I could physically show the volume of my tears. These are not the mediums, but I wonder how video games are. And what it means to play mourning/loss/grief. And how we can experience and understand affect through simulation. And what experiential/emotional games with no win condition, no lesson, and little to no control can make understandable.

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