Fighting that dragon cancer

Parents Ryan and Amy Green have launched a video game based on their experience helping their son Joel fight cancer. Here’s what you need to know about the game, which won the most impactful game award at the Game Awards in 2016.

You don’t often come across a video game inspired by a family’s tragic loss of their son. I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at 11 years old, so I was immediately intrigued by the thought of this video game. Why turn this story into a game and how would it end?

Most video games give us a brief sphere of distraction, as they allow us to enter a new environment. Our worries and frustrations get put, briefly, on pause. Personally, when I was in hospital receiving chemotherapy, I would often turn to my PlayStation for relief – a break from everything happening around me. Yet, That Dragon, Cancer is a game unlike any others I ever played.

Joel Green, son of Ryan and Amy Green, was diagnosed with an atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumour at 12 months. Doctors gave Joel four months to live; however, he fought on bravely for four more years despite developing seven additional tumours. The tumours had left him partially deaf and blind. At one point, he had to relearn how to walk.

In March 2014, when he was five, Joel passed away. That Dragon, Cancer is played as an exploration game from both a third- and first-person perspective through a number of abstracted scenes based on the Greens’ experience with raising Joel from diagnosis through to his death.

The player takes the role of Ryan and Amy in 14 small vignettes that capture some of the emotional moments they had to face during Joel’s life, expressed as interactive art. The player is able to interact with the characters and make certain choices, similar to those that the Greens had to face. Amy recently spoke at a TED Talk, describing why the element of play is so important for paediatric patients.

“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, so that the player discovers that there is nothing that they can do that will change the outcome for Joel,” Amy explained.

“They feel that discovery as deeply and desperately as we felt it on nights when we held Joel, stubbornly holding out hope for a grace that we could not create for ourselves,” she notes.

“Perhaps you’re thinking, like so many people before you: cancer is not a game. Well, tell that to any paediatric cancer parent who’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 racing car. When you have children, everything is a game,” she says.

“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,” she says.

Play was a vital part in my recovery. Being able to break away for a few seconds by laughing at something silly came as a joyous relief. For the Greens, the game is a way to preserve and to celebrate the memory of their son’s life.

This video game is hard to play. There is no winner, trophy or points gained. It’s a real-life battle between a child and dragon. I was fortunate to have been able to kill my dragon. Although Joel wasn’t as lucky as I was, I admire Amy and Ryan for honouring their son in a unique, moving way.

Emily Gray is an amputee reintegration and motivation specialist. She was diagnosed with an osteosarcoma when she was 11 years old, which necessitated the amputation of her left leg through the hip. She then went on to represent South Africa at three Paralympic Games. She now helps amputees and cancer patients reintegrate into society by focusing on their physical and mental wellbeing.

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