Can we play grief?

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These are (most of) the slides from my talk at SpilBar #29: Thank You For Playing at Cinemateket on Thursday March 30th – plus some notes and links to the games and articles I mentioned.

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I wrote a review of That Dragon, Cancer in Jyllands-Posten in February 2016. The game got a lot of attention from the press in general, all over the world. The main reason for that is not that it’s about death (which is a common occurrence in video games) – but that it’s about a real death of a real child. Autobiographical games are not very common (yet).

You can read the review here: Krisebearbejdende computerspil vinder frem

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The son of Ryan Green (game developer) and Amy Green (stand-up comedian) was diagnosed with a very serious form of cancer at 1. The doctors assumed he would only live for a few months. But he stayed alive until he was 5. Ryan and Amy Green made a game about the entire process, and That Dragon, Cancer was released on what would have been Joel’s 7th birthday.

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I told a friend about the game about a month ago and her reaction was “Whyyyyyyyy would anyone want to play a game like this?” My answer was that it’s for the same reason that we like to listen to sad music and watch scary movies and why we have written tragedies for hundreds of years. Human beings like to explore difficult feelings in fictional settings. We like to expand our emotional scope from a safe setting. Some people like it more than others, though.

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But I’m very aware of where her question came from. As soon as people hear the word “computer games”they tend to think of something that’s supposed to be fun and entertaining, even if it takes place in a grim and scary setting (like Limbo above, or a zombie apocalypse).

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And That Dragon, Cancer is not “fun”. It’s much more like reading a sad book. It lets you feel the grief and guilt and powerlessness of the parents. But in a different way than a book would. Some of these feelings are communicated in an extra powerful way, because they’re induced by your own actions…
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…like the guilt I felt when I escaped through the window from the incessant crying in the hospital room.
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The scope of feelings that computer games can evoke is pretty good. But I also made a list of feelings that are easily evoked by music (like romantic and melancholic feelings) – and they ended up in the “rarely” section. So there’s a quest or a challenge here: Let’s try to make more games that have the power to reach the red feelings. The more introverted and complex ones.

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The good news is – this is already happening.

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Link to my review here: Fængsler, labyrinter og sceneskræk

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Link to my review here: Brandvarm anbefaling af ensom tur i ødemarken

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I’ve written several articles about this magnificent game. This is the newest:

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Can we play grief keynote IMAGES.015And last but to least: The masterpiece Journey from 2012. Article here: Årets 10 bedste computerspil

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I’m optimistic!

If one needs inspiration for making computer games filled with complex red feelings, a good place to look for inspiration is in the physical/digital style games of the Copenhagen games studio KnapNok Games – (making games that are often intentionally awkward and embarrassing) – and the Danish LARP scene (Live Action Role Playing).

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Not all people want to play emotionally challenging games, though. Many people thought that the theme in That Dragon, Cancer was a bit too close to home.

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Many people don’t even think that we should apply any kind of “game” metaphors to serious subjects like cancer.

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But I’m thinking – why not? Why not think about our whole life as game?
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And an end note: The new virtual reality technology will give the digital games access to even more feelings that were usually more readily evoked by physical games – like intimidation and embarrassment (just to mention two).

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I’m tied up in a chair in the horror game The Kitchen – at Paris Games Week above.

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