“That Dragon, Cancer ” Invites Players to Experience the Joys and Struggles of a Real-Life Family Battling Cancer

It’s nothing like what you typically think of when you hear someone mention a “video game.”

Games are fun, strategic and fast-paced. They offer players the chance to exercise some degree of control, while also offering a brief escape from reality.  “That Dragon, Cancer“ is not your average video game.

Ryan and Amy Green made the game as a tribute to the life of their late son, Joel, who lost his 4­-year fight against cancer when he was just five years old.

The game is a memoir that invites players into the intimate moments of the Greens’ family life. It’s more like an interactive visual story book than most video games currently on the market.

The game is a memoir that invites players into the intimate moments of the Greens’ family life. It’s more like an interactive visual story book than most video games currently on the market.

The Greens, who live in Colorado, spent three years developing the game with a small team of artists and designers.

Ryan, who is a programmer, quit his job to work on the project.

“I feel like ‘That Dragon, Cancer’ is one of those breakthrough moments,” New School professor and author John Sharp told the New York Times. Sharp is a professor of games at the New School and the author of “Works of Game,” a book about pairing of games and art. “I think we may look back at this game and see this as a touch point, a moment of rethinking what people can do with interactivity.”

“That Dragon, Cancer” includes audio from home movies and from “Thank You for Playing,” a film about the Greens that premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The game is an animated, artful depiction of the Greens’ emotional state during their son’s bout with cancer. When the doctor announces there are no more treatments for Joel’s cancer, water fills the room.

There is a dragon, but the game predominately consists of everyday moments like phone calls and hospital visits. Players hear Joel’s laughter, which occurs often, but they also listen to the prayers of parents, who are Christians, shouted on the last night of their son’s life.

Published on Dec 22, 2015

An immersive adventure game that retells Joel Green’s 4-­year fight against cancer through about two hours of poetic, imaginative game-play.

The controls are intentionally limited. One scene involves a go-kart race through a hospital, but the speed of the go-kart is set by the game. This frustrated some critics, but according to Ryan, “That’s the point.”

All you can do is steer, hopefully,” he told the Times.

The absence of any real control is meant to allow players to experience the real feelings of joy, hope, helplessness and despair, just as the Greens did with Joel.

One of the great strengths of video games is that automatically a player goes into a game expecting to have some agency,” Amy told the Times. “And it felt like the perfect way to talk about cancer, because all a parent wants is to have some agency.”

So why provide players any control at all? In other words, what’s the point of making it a video game?

Sharp made a comparison between the current cultural status of games to that of painting during the Italian Renaissance, when art was beginning to shift from being functional to something valued simply for its aesthetic.

“It took hundreds of years to make this transition for painting,” he said. “So, looking at it through my art-historian goggles, it’s not really a surprise that there are folks who are outside the epicenter of the games community who make the assumption that if games aren’t escapist, they must be educational or therapeutic.


That Dragon, Cancer” acts nothing like a conventional video game. This wonderful and poetic meditation on loss and life theorizes that games are a key to understanding our greatest mysteries, even the ones that we find most discomforting. Los Angeles Times

A remarkable piece of work that challenges everything I thought I knew about grief, hope and faith. Tom Hoggins – Telegraph

That Dragon, Cancer shows how video games can create empathy, both through the simple method of allowing the player to experience unfamiliar situations – and by twisting what is real and not-real within them. It’s cut through with human resilience and humour but ultimately defined by a determination to leave a mark on a little boy’s behalf – something to show he was here, and real, and mattered. An unforgettable experience. The Guardian

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