‘That Dragon, Cancer’ Video Game Helps Colorado Family Cope With Son’s Death

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<p>(Courtesy Ryan and Amy Green)</p>
<p>In a 2013 family photo, Joel Green (left) poses with his father Ryan, his brothers Isaac, Elijah and Caleb, and his mother, Amy. </p>
Photo: That Dragon, Cancer computer game screenshot
A screenshot from the "That Dragon, Cancer" computer game developed in Colorado.

This story first aired on 04/23/2015.

After a Colorado father learned his son had pediatric brain cancer, he did something unexpected. Ryan Green started to make a video game.

That Dragon, Cancer” memorializes Joel, who died last year at age 5. The game captures the Loveland family’s experience during his four-year fight against cancer. And while it’s intended to help others also suffering from loss, some say it presents a virtual reality that is all too real.

“These different creative outlets are how we process our feelings and how we process what we’re going through and what we’re learning at the time,” Green said. “It’s pretty important to us to create in the midst of our struggle.”

“That Dragon, Cancer” is an point-and-click style game. Players move through various settings and try things in different scenarios -- like pushing Joel on a swing in the park or calming him as he cries the hospital.

It’s a real take on the family’s journey, which means sometimes the game doesn’t give players many choices says Ryan’s wife Amy.

“I think that’s frustrating for some people who play the game,” she said. “But I think it really resonates with other people because that is what our situation was like.”

Tragedy leads to creativity

It all started with a children’s book that the Greens self-published in 2013. Amy started writing the story to communicate Joel’s condition to their other young children.

“We thought, ‘How do we prepare them for the fact that he could die but at the same time keep having hope and joy and praying for him to be healed?’” Amy says. “Every night, we’d tell a bedtime story about Joel the brave knight fighting this dragon, cancer.”


Rather than appearing in the game as a character you must defeat, the titular dragon serves as a metaphor for cancer.

“There’s this idea that dragons are greedy and jealous of their possessions,” Ryan said. “So cancer seems like this jealous thing. Its quest to live chokes everything else out.”

The symbol is also part of the family’s Christian faith, which informed their approach to the video game. While faith is a big part of their story, Amy says that the game doesn’t preach.

"Thrown into the deep end"

The Greens have invested nearly three years and the family savings into “That Dragon, Cancer.” Last year, the project earned more than $100,000 on Kickstarter. A California-based game-console maker called OUYA will release the game.

Ryan has been working with a team of seven to finish it, including programmers and sound engineers. He started collaborating on the game with co-creator Josh Larson in 2012.

Larson lives in Iowa, but he chose to commit to the project remotely full-time and even devoted some of his own money.

“We realized how much bigger than ourselves this project was and the potential for positive impact that it had,” Larson said. “At that point it was easy to decide no matter what it takes, we’re going to finish this project.”

Some scenes in “That Dragon, Cancer” transport you back to the family’s most difficult moments.

Near the end of that game’s second act, players find themselves in a hospital room with Ryan and Amy. Two doctor’s reveal that Joel’s brain tumor is back, and the cancer is terminal.

You observe the conversation and you can toggle between the parents’ thoughts. Suddenly, rain starts to fall inside the room. It soon turns to a downpour with thunder and lightning. And as the water rises, you find yourself in a lifeboat with Joel.

“It’s conveying this idea that we’ve been thrown into the deep end,” Ryan says.

Brooklyn-based filmmaker David Osit co-directed a documentary about the game. “Thank You For Playing” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week. In one scene, Osit and his partner Malika Zouhali-Worrall filmed gamers hugging Green and talking about their own experiences with loss at the PAX Prime gaming conference in Seattle.

“The fact that a video game was capable of engendering that kind of conversation was really staggering and surprising,” Osit said. “It was creating a dialog in this space where there is kind of an absence of emotional sharing.”

The game has its critics though. In another scene in the documentary, Green reads an online comment that calls his game "self-indulgent."

“It keeps annoying me that Joel’s dad is turning his struggle into a piece of interactive entertainment,” the comment reads. “It’s like making a video of your kid dying and posting it on YouTube.”

The Colorado Independent Game Developers Association's Megan Fox says “That Dragon, Cancer” could win awards. But she questions if people will buy it.

“It’s in this weird place where it’ll make this really amazing art project, but I have absolutely no idea how it’ll do commercially,” said the video game developer. “I don’t know, which is why I have immense respect for him because it’s a super risky proposition.”

Life after Joel

These days, the Greens often play board and video games with their three young boys -- Caleb, 9, Isaac, 7, and Elijah, who’s 3. They also have a 1-year-old daughter named Zoe.

Caleb says he still has mixed emotions about his brother Joel.

“It kind of sadly brings me back to like more of the sad parts, and I feel like it’s getting slightly harder to remember the happy things that happened,” he said.

So Caleb is glad “That Dragon, Cancer” captures the family’s happier times too.

“He always loved dogs, I know that’s in there for sure,” Caleb says. “He just liked everybody.”

The Greens say they want to make a video game that’s emotional, raw and genuine. And that means also including other real elements of life, like love and laughter.

In fact, “That Dragon, Cancer” includes audio of Joel’s actual laugh. And Ryan says through this video game he hopes to show people that even in the midst of hardship, there are moments of grace.

“I wish you could just know what it was like to make Joel laugh,” he says. “That matters, that’s the space in between the whole story. It’s about Joel and loving Joel and loving each other.”