That Dragon, Cancer and the art of surrender

I can’t get baby Joel to stop crying. He doesn’t want his juice box. He doesn’t want me to hold him. As his wails grow louder and more pained, I seem to be out of options. I resign to telling my son that I can’t make him feel better, words no father ever wants to say.

It seems odd for a video game to give you a goal you can’t achieve, but that’s just one of the things that makes That Dragon, Cancer special. The game is a haunting, painful and yet beautiful interactive poem, created by Ryan and Amy Green, along with developer Josh Larson, to tell the story of their young child’s real-life battle with—and eventual loss to—cancer at the age of five.

“Interactive poem” is a better term for the title than video game. There aren’t any traditional goals, and the ones given to you seem awfully mundane. Feed the ducks at the pond. Examine pictures in a hallway. Push baby Joel on a swing. The game seems more concerned with guiding you through the events being depicted rather than letting you having any say in how these events play out. Which is, of course, the point.

That Dragon, Cancer is a devastating interactive story of a family's real-life encounter with cancer.

That Dragon, Cancer is a devastating interactive story of a family’s real-life encounter with cancer.

Gaming is often goal-oriented, asking us to solve problems and achieve things to make ourselves feel accomplished. We usually expect a reward in return. That Dragon, Cancer is part of a recent trend of “empathy games” that take a different route. More often autobiographical in nature, the goal of empathy games is to put the gamer in someone else’s shoes; perhaps a real person facing real emotions, or at least a reasonable facsimile of one. No bullet sponges or high speed chases here. In the ongoing conversation of games as art, the idea that games can allow us to connect with others in the way a great novel or film can has been a difficult hurdle for the medium to overcome. And yet, I never thought I would emphasize with the identity struggles of a lesbian teenager until I played Gone Home. And The Stanley Parable messed with my conceptions of free will and storytelling as much as One Hundred Years of Solitude.

That Dragon, Cancer is simpler than those games, and yet infinitely richer in its emotional impact. By giving us an impossible task (save Joel from dying) and asking us to control it, the Greens reveal to us the futility of human endeavor, especially when it comes to trying to make sense of unexpected tragedy. One of the game’s more creative examples of this is when the player is tasked with guiding a flying Joel through a minefield of cancer cells. Joel is held up by balloons, and once those balloons pop, he will fall. As the cancer cells continue to multiply and navigating the field becomes harder, I realize that I’m not supposed to win. Eventually, I have to surrender to the makers of the game and fail at this particular task in order to proceed.

Surrender is a big theme in the game, specifically, to God. Not that doing so was easy for the Greens. Throughout the game, the player reads letters the husband and wife wrote to one another. Amy always appears cheerful, resting in the hope that God will hear her prayers and heal Joel.

“I pray I find God’s wisdom in the midst of chaos,” she says. “My doubt is insignificant compared to God’s faithfulness.”

Ryan tries to remain hopeful, but is often jealous of Amy’s cheery outlook on their son’s increasingly grim situation.

“My wife is expecting a surprise party from the Lord…I envy her,” he says.

Ryan and Amy’s prayers seem to have got them through this tough season, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do their part. They moved with their two other sons to California from Colorado just to try an alternative treatment for Joel. They (and by extension, the player) spent many sleepless nights in the hospital. They tried just about everything they could, but in the scene where the doctors come to announce that there isn’t anything else they can do, the game shifts. We’re no longer battling the cancer; we’re battling the voices of fear, doubt and pain that emerge in Ryan and Amy’s heads. We’re asked to resign ourselves to the fact that prayer is the only thing we have left to do.

The game’s Steam reviews are overwhelmingly positive, but most of the negative reviews complain about its blatant religious overtones. Those opinions are valid, but they miss the point. The Greens’ personal experience is not universally relatable, nor should it be. Their strong Christian faith is no less a part of their story than Joel himself. To diminish its importance in order to appeal to a wider audience would be disingenuous.

But the Greens’ Christian faith isn’t something they just conjured up to make them feel better about their baby’s death. It’s an all-encompassing hope that protrudes into every area of their life. Prayer doesn’t always have to bring tangible results to have value. Faith doesn’t always bring the healing we desire it to. God isn’t a personal genie we conjure up when we need things from him, but God is there in the midst of our pain, and he fights for us and with us.

“Grace is…kind of like help,” Amy narrates as the player fights the fire-breathing dragon of cancer as an avatar of Joel decked in armor. “We know that God fights for Joel, even when he can’t fight for himself.” It is then that grace appears as a majestic golden eagle, lifting up Joel after he is felled by a fireball.images

That faith-filled hope is driven home in the game’s ending, where I am tasked with lighting candles in church to pray for Joel’s healing. Each candle is tied to a specific prayer, and as I attempt to light all the candles at once, a symphony of prayers rise, united in their diversity. Of course, we already know those prayers weren’t answered, at least in the way we would have liked them to be, but for Christians the good news is that even this is not the end of the story. Death never has the final say, and neither does cancer. Without giving anything more away, I even get to see Joel one more time before the credits roll.

Yes, That Dragon, Cancer is an unapologetically Christian examination of death and tragedy. It’s also probably the first Christian video game that can be considered great art. From its beautiful soundtrack to its creative use of shifting perspective and haunting stylized visuals, the game is an artistic masterwork. It’s the closest we’ll get to an interactive The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Perhaps, most importantly, it’s a potent reminder that the world needs good Christian art. Stories like the ones the Greens have shared are valuable stories that need to be told—stories of God’s grace and provision through life’s up and (especially) downs. We don’t want to play or watch a religious tract or a Sunday school sermon. Just give us a story, and tell it well. And while you’re at it, give us a few tissues.

That Dragon, Cancer is on sale on Steam through March 21. You can purchase it here. 

Video Games and Violence

Much ado has been lately about the connection between video games and gun violence. It’s been a media target for some time, and the recent Sandy Hook shootings have only added to the frenzy. I saw this video the other day and thinks it speaks volumes.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to embed the video, but it is worth your time.

Adam Sessler is right. There seems to be something that happens when a new form of media comes on the scene. People with more traditional sensibilities almost always rally against it, simply because it is new and unknown. Video games have been facing that stigma for some time. Here is a research paper I wrote on the subject, particularly how it relates to youth aggression. This is an important issue that I think we need to be paying more attention to, rather than just pointing fingers.


Interactive Electronic Entertainment: Culprit or Scapegoat?

Ever since the creation of film in the early twentieth century, the debate over media violence and its effect on aggression has been ongoing. By the mid-1970s, however, society thought it had everything figured out. While violent media certainly had its detractors, most people were willing to accept it as long as it stayed on the screen, static and un-interactive.  However, a new, highly interactive medium came along to throw a proverbial wrench in the works; this medium was video games. The increasingly interactive and violent video games of the early 1990s led to concern from both parents and lawmakers about the harmful effects that this interactive violence could have upon children, particularly after it was revealed that the shooters of the Columbine massacre on April 20, 1999, enjoyed the violent shooting game Doom. Since then, many experts have weighed in their opinions, ultimately finding a causal relationship between short-term adolescent aggression and violent video games. The evidence, however, shows that increased aggression has not been proven to correlate to violent or antisocial behavior later in life, and that insisting so ultimately causes parents to overlook more imperative issues regarding the world their children are being raised in.

Today, the issues regarding negative associations between adolescent aggression are even more numerous and controversial, partially because video games have become so popular. According to Wagner, “Video games are in 80% with children; they generated $6 billion in 2000 and $11 billion by 2003” (par. 9). According to aMichiganStateUniversitysurvey of youths from fifth grade through college, they are spending more time playing video games than watching television (Wagner par. 2). In Kutner and Olson’s survey of middle school youth, just 17 children out of 1,254 had never played video games (89-90). Given the prevalence of video games in family homes acrossAmerica, it’s easy to see that they’re not going away anytime soon. It’s also easy to see the concerns that parents may have about the effects these video games may have upon their children, particularly the violent ones. This concern makes any reasonable evidence concerning the effects of these games very important for parents.

The first question that parents may ask regarding the video games that their children play is “Will playing these games really make my child more aggressive?” According to the research of Craig A. Anderson of the American Psychological Association, the answer is yes. Anderson’s General Affective Aggression Model suggests that “playing a violent video game can cause violent thoughts, feelings, and even physical symptoms (elevated heart rate) that, if repeated over time, can change habits of behavior , leading to more aggression” (Brake 269).

According to Anderson’s research, “violent video games are significantly associated with: increased aggressive behavior, thoughts and affect, increased physiological arousal; and decreased prosocial (helping) behavior” (Anderson par. 4). Also,Anderson says that high levels of violent game exposure have been linked to criminal behavior (par. 9). Although many might think that this connection only exists with graphically violent video games, studies have also found increased aggression after playing unrealistic and fantasy violent games (Anderson par. 11). If Anderson’s research is any indication, parents might have a lot to worry about when it comes to their children playing video games, but the problems don’t stop there.

Research has shown that video games are inherently addictive, causing a child to lose track of time and play while ignoring all else (Skalski and Fitzpatrick, 274). While visions of a pasty, isolated child who badly needs a shower, playing uninterrupted for days straight, are frightening enough, children who are addicted to video games may experience symptoms of withdrawal when these games are taken away (Skalski and Fitzpatrick 274), not unlike the symptoms of an addiction to a drug. Worst of all, addiction to games may lead to increased capacities for aggression (Skalski and Fitzpatrick 273). This risk of addiction is further complicated by the fact that video games are becoming increasingly realistic, and that the increase of violent behaviors in games increases the risks that are associated with these behaviors (Skalski and Fitzpatrick 274).

The most disturbing fact about the effects of violent games on youth is not the previously stated evidence, or even the effects themselves, but simply the fact that research on the issue as a whole is so weak and thin (Freedman 42), and there are still many questions that people are asking that have not been answered sufficiently. Part of the problem lies simply in the fact that the medium as a whole is relatively new, and, because of that, the content has not been as thoroughly analyzed as that of movies or TV (Sherry 285). Additionally, results on the effects of violent video games thus far are mostly similar to those on TV and movie violence (Wagner par. 4), and it seems as though most researchers have just assumed that video games are as simple in their effect on users as those other mediums. Another complicating factor lies in the fact that the results of experimental studies on the effects of video games have been mixed. Some have found a link between violent video games and aggression, while others have found no link or even a decrease in aggression as a result of such exposure (Ferguson26). Brake concludes that, if a connection between video games and violence exists, it is only one of many factors (269). Obviously, there is a lot for parents and those concerned with the fate of youth to be worried about. But, given so much inconsistent evidence, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what we all should be most concerned about.

Another problem is the fact that this issue is much more complex than first meets the eye. While Anderson’s research is certainly a cause for concern, there is evidence that suggests that he is not seeing the whole picture. The correlation between media violence and aggression raises the possibility that it causes children to be aggressive, but it is still only a possibility. The challenge is proving causality (Freedman 45). In other words, the fact that video games can cause aggression holds very little significance if it does not specifically increase long-term aggression. The other main concern is that playing video games will lead children to become violent criminals. However, the evidence for school shooters does not support the idea that their playing of violent games has a direct effect on their decision to shoot (Ferguson 29); and, youth violence has decreased significantly over the last decade, so much that, according to Kutner and Olson, “You are more likely to be struck and killed by lightning than to die in a school shooting” (8). Just because criminals sometimes blame violent video games such as Grand Theft Auto for their actions doesn’t mean that they’re telling the truth. It’s common for criminals to place blame for their actions on something else, including video games (Ferguson 34).

The overall trends in violent crime do not support the correlation between increased aggression and violent acts, either. According to a survey by Griffiths and Hunt, only 12% of school violence perpetrators expressed interest in violent video games, as compared to over 90% of non-violent males who play violent video games (Ferguson29). Additionally, if violent video game sales have increased in recent years, violent crimes have actually decreased dramatically (Ferguson33). Given this evidence, it really does not seem logical to blame all of society’s problems on violent video games. And, if short-term aggression does not lead to long-term aggression or violent behavior, thenAnderson’s research is insignificant.

There is, however, further evidence suggesting that not only isAnderson’s evidence inconsequential, but it may also be outright false. First off,Anderson’s research is the only one of its kind out there. So, even with his conclusions, “Neither the quality nor quantity of research on video games does much to inspire confidence in solid conclusions about their effects” (Kutner and Olson 58). Also, studies that take into account variables such as personality, family violence or genetics find that these variables weaken the link between video game violence and aggression (Ferguson27).Anderson’s studies did not consider these variables. Freedman even concluded that, “due to weak evidence, exposure to media violence does not cause aggression, or if it does the effects are so weak that they cannot be detected and must therefore be vanishingly small” (200-201). It can be concluded that, whileAndersonhad good intentions, his studies may have been at least partially influenced by politics

Politics, in fact, have played a large role in the lynching of video games in the media as the cause of all of our youth’s violence. “Video games present something of a ‘straw man’ by which politicians can create an appearance of taking action against crime” (Ferguson 30). The media contributes to these biases, often paying “greater attention to negative news about video games than to positive news as it better suits their agendas” (Ferguson30). The most egregious example of these biases is the shooting at Virginia Tech. Pundits were quick to blame video games for the shooter’s behavior, even  though “police found no video games, consoles or other equipment when they searched his room” (Kutner and Olson 195).  Another contributor to these biases is simply the generation gap between legislators and members of the media and young adults and children, who are the primary players of video games (Kutner and Olson 201).

All of these biases lead to a moral panic, where frightened, uninformed parents take the war on video games to a legislative battle. “As moral panic develops, research is ‘cherry picked’ that supports the panic. Research supportive of the moral is accepted without question,” whereas research that questions the panic is ignored (Ferguson32). This moral panic came to a head when the Illinois Legislature’s 2005 bill to ban the sale of violent video games to minors was presented to the State Court by Craig Anderson and Florida Attorney and anti-video game activist Jack Thompson. Although it was a state battle, national attention was focused on the decision of this court, as their decision could influence other states to take similar action against video games.U.S.District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly saw through the political posturing and moral panic, however, when he discredited the merit of Anderson’s research. “Dr. Anderson provided no evidence supporting the view that playing violent video games has a lasting effect on aggressive thoughts and behavior—in other words, an effect that lingers more than a short time after the player stops playing the game” (Kutner and Olson 203). Kennelly also took a stand against political influence in the family household. “If controlling access to allegedly ‘dangerous’ speech is important in promoting the positive psychological development of children, in our society that role is properly accorded to parents and families, not the state” (Kutner and Olson 205).

Despite all of these issues, the most important issue for parents has not yet been raised. Using video games—or any other kind of media for that matter—as a scapegoat for the problems of our youth shifts the focus away from the much more important and pressing issues regarding the way children are raised, which include “a range of social, behavioral, economic, biological and mental health factors” (Kutner and Olson 190). Kutner and Olson conclude that there is little evidence that solving the violent media debate will solve our violent crime problem (108), and that, compared to other factors in the children’s environment, the influence of media exposure is relatively small (121). In the meantime, however, what is to be done with video games?

The solution for parents is to make video games work for their family rather than against them. Each family should decide for themselves how to do this, but here are a few tips. Children often incorporate their parents’ values and judgments into their interpretations of the violence they see in video games (Kutner and Olson 218). Given good values and judgments, they will be able to take these judgments and apply them to their confrontations in the virtual world. Another tip is to simply let children play video games, particularly because “the appeal of violent video games is likely related to normal sensation-seeking and to testing the limits of acceptability” (Kutner and Olson 116). Furthermore, playing with violent themes helps children overcome being frightened. The emotional arousal caused by these games lets the children experiment with these sensations when they know they’re safe (Kutner and Olson 119). It’s also important to know that, for many young players, video gaming is a very social activity, whether kids are playing Halo at their friends’ houses or World of Warcraft online, where they are likely to make interactions with new people and perhaps make new friends. Defeating a real person in a game helps children figure out social relationships (Kutner and Olson, 130-131). So, allowing them to play with friends lets them form these important bonds themselves. Also, be aware of the real-world violence that is going on in or around your household. Realistic violence, like on the news, is thought to be more likely to desensitize children than video game violence, which children often know is fake (Kutner and Olson 107). Finally, it’s important to know that some children are more vulnerable to the influence of media, while others are more resistant (Kutner and Olson 121). In other words, parents should know their children and their limitations.

It’s important to understand than not all video games are appropriate for children to play. However, it’s also important to realize that video games have some distinctly positive benefits for children. Some educators believe that many electronic games, even those that are not explicitly educational, can help children learn (Brake 270). Video games have also been used as a form of physiotherapy, and can improve hand-eye coordination. Game play has also been cited as a positive influence on nonverbal portions of IQ tests (Brake 271). Some children have used games that include aerobic exercise, like Dance Dance Revolution or Wii Fit, in weight reduction plans, and P.E. programs and gyms have begun to use them as well (Kutner and Olson 216). Video games are also very positive for children with learning disabilities, particularly ADD, because, in the virtual world, they can truly succeed at something while coping with their feelings of anger or isolation (Kutner and Olson 134-135). Finally, while a major concern for many parents is that their children will not be able to fully understand the real-world consequences of their actions in the virtual world; there is evidence to suggest that that is not the case. In Kutner and Olson’s studies of middle-school youth, the kids understood the real-world consequences that acting like their favorite game character would have, and expressed a desire to avoid such consequences (122). It appears as though children are actually keenly aware of the real-world consequences of their actions in video games, perhaps more often than many parents might give them credit for.

The increased levels of violence in video games have led to much controversy, including political grandstanding and plenty of concerns from parents and lawmakers. Lost in the mix, however, is the true problem: thinking that simply getting rid of video games to solve all of the problems of youth causes parents and lawmakers to ignore more pertinent issues regarding the current state of youth and how to properly raise them. And, while video game violence and its effect on aggression and criminality in adolescents is an important debate with valid concerns, it does not mean that parents should simply look for a scapegoat to fit our preconceived notions. Rather, parents should examine the evidence, and then draw their conclusions based upon that evidence. Based upon that evidence, it’s easy to see that, although we should remain vigilant and alert in regards to the potentially harmful effects of video games and violent media in general, video games alone will not transform a child into a hardened criminal. Ultimately, while it is important for parents to know their children and their limits, they should also understand that if a kid or teenager goes out and kills someone, video games have been  the least of his/her problems.


Works Cited

Anderson, Craig A. “General Affective Aggression Model.”

American Psychological Association. Web. 23 Feb. 2010

Anderson, Craig A. “Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts, and Unanswered Questions.” The American Psychological Association. Oct. 2003. Web. 4 Feb. 2010.

Brake, David. “Effects of Electronic Games.” Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents

and the Media. Ed. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett. Vol. 1.Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2007. Print.

Ferguson, Christopher J. “The School Shooting/ Violent Video Game Link: Causal

Relationship or Moral Panic?” Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling 5 (2008): 25-37. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Feb. 2010.

Freedman, Jonathan L. Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the

            Scientific Evidence.Toronto: University of Toronto Press Inc., 2002. Print.

Kutner, Lawrenceand Olson, Cheryl K. Grand Theft Childhood.New York: Simon &

Schuster, 2008. Print.

Sherry, John L. “Violence in Electronic Games.” Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents

and the Media. Ed. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett. Vol. 1.Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2007. Print.

Skalski. Paul and Fitzpatrick, Stacy. “High Risk Players of Electronic Games.”

Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents and the Media. Ed. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett.

Vol. 1.Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2007. Print.

Wagner, Cynthia G. “Aggression and Violent Media.” The Futurist. July-August 2004:

16. Academic Search Premier. Web. 2 Feb. 2010.






Movies vs. Video Games: The Problem with Comparison

There has been a strange trend with the recent reviews of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Surely, one would expect comparisons to Tolkien’s original book and Jackson’s previous “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But video games?

Yes, the recently released film adaptation of Tolkien’s timeless story has become the latest victim of being negatively compared to a video game. While critics have taken issues with the film’s slack pacing, bloated length and overabundance of CGI, some have also seen it as less of a cinematic exercise and more of an electronic one.

The recent “Hobbit” film is only the latest movie to be negatively compared to a video game

Rottentmoates’ Tim Ryan writes:

“I love the following things, in no particular order: cinema, video games, and BBC series. However, The Hobbit taught me an important lesson: I don’t like it when my movies look alternately like video games and/or BBC series. There were moments in the film where I wasn’t sure whether I was watching the making-of featurette or a cut scene (for a millisecond after Gandalf showed up to rescue the dwarves from the Great Goblin, my brain instinctively steeled itself for an intense boss battle).”

While Ryan wrote mostly of Jackson’s controversial decision to shoot the film in 48 frames per second (twice the normal 24), a similar argument could be made for the film’s CG-heavy visuals. It’s certainly not the first popular movie to receive the seemingly ignoble distinction. Everything from “The Avengers” to film in the “Transformers,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and “Spider-Man” franchises have been, one time or another, been compared more to video games than movies.

The comparison is rarely flattering. After all, video games are child’s toys, while film is an old and sophisticated art form. Or so the consensus seems to be.

But, for several reasons, comparing movies to video games is never a truly valid critique. The major flaw in reasoning is the fact that movies and video games are fundamentally different mediums. No matter how much we might call it so, “The Hobbit” is a movie. It will never be interactive. Regardless of how many times I watch it, even if I memorize every line, the movie will never change. It is an artifact, immovable in time. That’s the beautiful thing about film: the story itself changes the same, but our interpretation of it can change along with us.

The major difference for video games is that they are, by their vary nature, interactive. It is a more dynamic medium, with a greater potential to engage the audience via its unique interactivity. Why then, are video games mentioned when a movie is criticized for being all flash and no substance?


“Bioshock” (2007) is one of the premier examples of the power of interactive storytelling, something that film will never be able to share.

Roger Ebert’s famed argument that “video games can never be art” is still being hotly debated, but certainly they can be as entertaining and emotionally engaging as movies. For every forgettable shooter or smash-em-up, there seems to be another game that is thought-provoking or emotionally engaging in ways that the medium of film can never convey. A popular example is “Bioshock,” and for good reason. The games dystopian themes and twisted world are magnificent simply because the player is allowed to explore them and shape them as they see fit. The reason a “Bioshock” movie sounds so unpalatable is simply because fans can’t imagine a version of that universe in which they aren’t the ones making the decisions that shape the story and world.

Or consider “Amnesia: The Dark Descent,” arguably the most terrifying game ever played. The terror exceeds that of any horror film because you are the one being hunted, you are the one running for your life. Many games emphasize making the player feel powerful, but this one trades in the art of fear.

Oddly enough, video game critics sometimes make the opposite argument: a game can, apparently, unflatteringly resemble a movie if there are too many cut scenes, too much static plot and not enough interaction. The greatest example is probably the “Metal Gear Solid” series, which features award-winning game play but has often been criticized for requiring players to sit through hours of convoluted storytelling before pressing a button.

“Metal Gear Solid 4” was criticized by some for its lengthy cut scenes sometimes resembling a movie more than a game.

The fact is that movies and video games can both be wonderful experiences, but for very different reasons. Movies will never be video games, and video games will never be movies. They are fundamentally different mediums, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Look at adaptations; there’s a reason both video games based on movies and movies based on video games rarely turn out well. No one has been able to quite figure out how to translate one medium’s strengths to the other. And maybe that’s the way it should be. Ultimately, critics should stick to what they know best. Movies should be compared to other movies, and games should be compared to other games. It does little good to call a film or a game something it’s not.