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“It’s small cell carcinoma,” my Mom’s voice told me through the phone. “Cancer. Stage four.” I was stunned, silent, confused. The week prior, my Mom had called to inform me that my Pop was sick. He had what they thought was a bad stomach bug and, after three weeks of being terribly ill, decided it was time to pay the doctor a visit. That visit led to tests, and those tests led to the cancer diagnosis. When I hung up the phone, I stared at the wall for a bit, not sure what to think. I cried, then I picked up my 3DS and started playing Bravely Default.
Strange behavior, I know. I find out that my Pop, a man I barely recall ever being sick other than a long-running tango with kidney issues, had been handed a death sentence and my initial reaction was to pick up a video game and start playing. My body was in auto-pilot mode, I told myself, but the events that followed over the course of the next several weeks helped me understand what was actually going on in my head.
I’m pretty new to this whole cancer business and, even though I know that stage four basically means that a person’s days are numbered, I had no idea that the time frame could be, say, only about a month left. My family lives several hours away and, planning to visit my Pop over the weekend, my Mom called again the following night.
“I hate to give you bad news,” she said, pausing.
“I know,” I offered, assuming the doctor had given her more information concerning my Pop's condition.
“Ryan, your Aunt Jan passed away this afternoon,” she said. “She’s gone, sweetie.”
After our conversation ended, I decided I would postpone my weekend trip in order to attend my Aunt’s funeral. She had been living with health issues of her own but, still, nobody saw such a sudden end coming. Again I found myself staring at the wall for a good while, I cried, I tried to understand what could possibly be going on and, before long, I picked up my 3DS again and started playing Bravely Default.
That was the last time I played that particular game. Whether it was because it was getting too repetitive or because I now associated it with two very tragic moments, one after the other, I have yet to return to my quest alongside the Heroes of Light.
But that’s not to say I’ve stopped playing video games this past month. Quite the opposite, actually. Over the next several weeks, I went to my Aunt Jan’s funeral and visited my pop each weekend leading up to his passing. I watched him grow more frail and less like himself with each visit, heartbreakingly progressing toward the inevitable.
I don’t remember much about the games I played during most of that time. Each weekend, when I got home, I turned on either Dark Souls II, one FPS or another, or perhaps Need for Speed and just watched as the pretty colors took me away from it all. I couldn’t focus on a story and seemed to get the most distraction out of games that required a higher degree of concentration and skill.
My Pop passed away just a couple of short weeks ago and, following that, I dove headlong into one review after another, pouring hours into Dynasty Warriors 8, Yaiba, Deception IV and Ragnarok Odyssey ACE. Again, all games that were blessedly light on story, heavy on action, skill and, yeah, a heavy amount of violence.
Receiving so many game review offers at once, I would normally spread the wealth around, offering up some of those opportunities to my fellow writers. It was a lot to take on at once, after all. But I was selfish, and I think I liked the idea of “having” to play as much as possible in order to churn out so many reviews in quick succession. They gave me a way to escape and, since they were part of a job, they allowed me to find that escape guilt-free. I wasn’t avoiding thinking about the loss of family members; I was simply getting work done. At least that’s what I told myself.
Having a little bit of breathing room between those weeks and now, I think I better understand why my reaction to tragedy was to just curl up in a video game and disappear, aside from the obvious benefit of keeping myself distracted.
Video games provide a sort of ideal setup for the player, one where death is followed by a respawn. When everything seems to fall apart around you, all you have to do is restart the level and give it another try. Simple, painless and infinite.
Those games were also giving me a very literal sense of control in a time when, in my real life, everything felt so chaotic. I didn’t turn to books, movies, television or music, as those are far more passive experiences. I turned to a distraction that would allow me to push a button or move an analog stick and make something happen. It didn’t just make “something” happen, but exactly what I wanted to happen. When it felt like the real world was tugging me along, powerless to have an impact on the events unfolding around me, games gave me a chance to reclaim a sense of control.
And then there are those hordes of enemies flooding the screen, marching in their set patterns or just waiting idly by for me to pulverize them with all manner of firearms, swords and traps. These were monsters I could understand. I knew how they would behave, I knew what their weaknesses were and, more importantly, I knew that I could fight back against them.
I can’t sneak up on a terrible diagnosis, I can’t push a button and make the bad stuff go away, and I can’t put on a suit of armor and charge at cancer with sword held high.