The news media has been abuzz the past few weeks about a new Kickstarter project called That Dragon, Cancer. The game is an attempt by a developer to chronicle the loss of his 4-year old son to terminal brain cancer. It’s a first-person point and click “adventure” with no puzzles at all—you play as a father who watches your child get sick, and then die.
The “game’s” selling point is that there’s nothing you can do to stop it—you’re simply forced to watch your child get worse and worse until the end. Most of your time is spent in locations like an ICU, a bedroom, or a park, and interactivity is limited to text prompts and button pushes.
The developers say that this project is a cathartic experience for them, and a way for them to share their story with other people who are suffering. There is, as near as I can tell, no reason to doubt that this is true. It may be a moving experience, and donating to the Kickstarter may be a worthy use of your money. What That Dragon, Cancer is not, however, a video game. It is not a game, it is an interactive art project, and that’s what we should call it.
That Dragon, Cancer has received an immense amount of media attention, a good deal of which comes from places that don’t normally cover video games, like the Wall Street Journal, NBC, and NPR, which ran a documentary on it entitled “In Gaming, A Shift from Enemies to Emotions.” People who’ve never played a video game in their lives are rushing to praise it.
The mentality on display by the press seems to be that a game about cancer is somehow better than a game about say, shooting zombies or terrorists (many have drawn explicit comparisons to the Call Of Duty franchise, with COD coming off unfavorably, of course.) It seems similar to the Oscars, where the more disabled, pathetic, and wretched the protagonist, the more journalists will proclaim to love the movie.
What no one has said, perhaps out of fear of seeming “against” a developer who lost his child to brain cancer, is that this isn’t a game at all. Beyond the fact that the subject matter is weightier and more personal, and the fact that its developer doesn’t seem nearly as cynical and profit-minded, That Dragon, Cancer is no different than Depression Quest or Gone Home, two “games” which have rightly attracted a great deal of derision for their complete lack of gameplay. You can’t win, you can’t lose, you experience the story the developer has written for you—and it’s usually a short one, with between a half hour and three hours of content—and then you’re done.
A video game is like any other game: it’s something you can win, or you can lose. “Win” doesn’t always mean “complete”—you can’t “win” at Pac-man, but you can get a high score or beat your friends. And “lose” doesn’t always mean “game over”—you can’t permanently lose at World of Warcraft, but you can fail to beat a boss and get stopped until you get better. A video game also has some element of skill involved, be it intelligence, like in Civilization, or twitch reflexes, like in Call Of Duty. Without these two elements, what you have isn’t a video game. These two elements are what make video games unique, and they’re something no other form of electronic entertainment has.
That Dragon, Cancer fails on both these two counts. There is no way to “win”, and there is no way to “lose”. You experience the story, and then you’re done. And there’s no element of skill involved either. The developers have specifically said they’re making it without puzzles to allow “non-gamers” to complete it. What they are then making is not a game—it is an interactive art project, no different than the ones that you can see at many museums across the country. Whether the final product turns out to be an excellent, moving piece of art or a piece of hokey crap is irrelevant: it won’t be a video game either way.
Why does this matter? Why pick on a developer who lost a child to brain cancer? Because words matter. Words mean things. And you should always be very, very careful when someone is trying to change their definitions. Gamers are under attack by people who want to warp and twist our hobby, and one of the ways they do it is by heaping praise on things that aren’t even games, and then by comparison disparaging games that they don’t like.
Games like Call Of Duty are portrayed as brutish, unsubtle, and unsophisticated, and things like Depression Quest are portrayed as brilliant new steps forward for the industry, and things that all developers should strive to emulate. The first step to fighting back by declaring that things like Depression Quest, Gone Home and yes, That Dragon, Cancer aren’t even video games, and to compare them to something like Call Of Duty is a category error on par with comparing Star Wars to the Venus de Milo.
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