“Games teach us things.”

Many games implement a worldview of obtaining rewards for our actions. An economy of risk and reward is fundamental to the gaming experience, and, excepting games like The Sims, it’s a comfortable harmony we’ve come to expect.

Yet there is no such discernible reward within That Dragon, Cancer, a title designed around the life of a young child stricken with cancer. It’s a surreal, poetic experience, and the game’s designer intends for the uncomfortable and unfamiliar scenario to convey truths somewhat neglected within most gaming experiences. In a video from Games for Change 2014, Josh Larson asks a question central to the soul of his game: “How does one calculate a parent’s love for a dying son who can’t easily express any love in return? How then should we design this?”

His answer: transformative game design through grace. Larson suggests the reason this game stirs our emotions so deeply is because it does not shy away from representing love within our relationship with Joel. If games teach us to “move through a space effectively,” That Dragon, Cancer prompts us to question what it means not to pursue a goal, but to abandon those goals to embrace another human being. Our shared goal simply becomes “being there” with Joel, and we immerse ourselves in it.

Larson wants for us to experience the role of a selfless servant, knowing that we care for Joel despite his inability to reciprocate the love we show him. And through grace, we are made better and whole. Near the ten minute mark of the video, Larson quotes Jonas Kyratzes, implying that That Dragon, Cancer shows that grace is in the things we carry: “Grace is when the two sides of the equation don’t match, but the thing works anyway. Grace is the absurd, yet wonderful face that sometimes you get out more than you put in.” When we step into the role of a parent, teacher, care-giver, and nurse, Larson intends that we recognize the selflessness of caring for another. In turn, we recognize the design of That Dragon, Cancer parallels our calling to see and show grace in the lives of those around us.

And there lies the beauty of That Dragon, Cancer. It may seem macabre to find beauty in Joel’s brief life, but grace redeems even the smallest moments we spend with another. And If Joel’s story prompts us to recognize the overwhelming beauty of grace, perhaps the game’s design will push other players ever closer to experiencing the most rapturous and transformative grace of all.


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  2. Great article that you wrote. Thanks for sharing the video, very good and well spoken by Josh. I had seen some of that game, and wrote a little about it on my blog. I hope that more games are made like these, that focus on an aspect of God’s nature and love, and can impact others for Christ.

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