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.

Material (In)Stability

Reading selections from Jesper Juul’s Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds as entre into digital games provided a space to explore the incomplete stability of fictional worlds, which Juul posits as perhaps the strongest innovation of the video game (the emphasis on game fiction as ambiguous, optional, uncontrollable, and unpredictable while still functioning within game rules/bounds of time and space 162—while the worlds of video games are ontologically unstable, the rules of the game are very stable). Juul states that all fictional worlds are incomplete, but that when information about a fictional world is not specified, we fill in the blanks using our understanding of the actual world (123). These fictional worlds are projected through a variety of means but are imagined by the player; some of these fictional worlds are optimal to compose in part by the player, while others may be contradictory or even incoherent (121). Fictional worlds borrow from the concept of possible worlds from analytical philosophy that worlds can be understood as abstract collections of states of affairs distinct from statements describing those states. Explained more specifically from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Anne is working at her desk. While she is directly aware only of her immediate situation — her being seated in front of her computer, the music playing in the background, the sound of her husband’s voice on the phone in the next room, and so on — she is quite certain that this situation is only part of a series of increasingly more inclusive, albeit less immediate, situations: the situation in her house as a whole, the one in her neighborhood, the city she lives in, the state, the North American continent, the Earth, the solar system, the galaxy, and so on. On the face of it, anyway, it seems quite reasonable to believe that this series has a limit, that is, that there is a maximally inclusive situation encompassing all others: things, as a whole or, more succinctly, the actual world.

Things, as a whole, needn’t have been just as they are, things might have been different in countless ways, both trivial and profound. Choice is as significant as nonchoice in affecting the fictional world, the environs, of game play. I found myself wondering how the type of game may be impacted differently by non/choice in affordances and limitations to the goal of play (not throwing a turtle shell in a Mario Kart race has a different effect than not collecting an artifact in an action rpg). It is my understanding (perhaps incorrectly) that rules in video games are invisible to Juul, and I wonder about the relationship between the rules, actual world understanding, and the instability of the fictional world in terms of material design of game and game play. This struck a pause in reading when Juul states that video games are immaterial. I wondered how video games and digital games (which I feel the need now to distinguish between) might make the fictional world and its affects and the player’s ability to affect more material—how the concept of possible rules might be explored more visibly in meaningful game play. I’m not sure of how this is possible, but I wonder about the expansion/extension of game play to include player input/actual world more explicitly through collaboratively develop fictional worlds, script/code, senses, haptics, sound, and the addition of information from outside of the material design of the game in ways that the game can accomodate as productive instability.