Thank You for Playing – Family’s Struggle with a Child’s Cancer Turns into a Life-Affirming Video Game

Posted by at 10:21 am on October 19, 2016


Ryan and Amy Green faced every parent’s worst nightmare when their infant son Joel was diagnosed with brain cancer. But Ryan, an independent video game developer, imagined that something larger and brighter could come out of his family’s struggle: a poetic video game that would help him share an experience so rarely discussed—raising a child with cancer.

That Dragon, Cancer, which evolves from a cathartic exercise into a critically acclaimed work of art that sets the gaming industry abuzz. A co-production of American Documentary | POV and ITVS. Official Selection of the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

For 18 months, award-winning filmmakers David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall followed Ryan as he created a game called “That Dragon, Cancer,” recruiting his wife and sons into the process of documenting their daily life in Loveland, Colo., for this unusual work of art. Combining footage from both Ryan’s real and animated worlds.

The film also tells a deeply moving love story of a husband and wife helping to keep each other afloat in the midst of a familial crisis by creating something entirely new together. The video game becomes a poetic exploration of a father’s relationship with his son, an interactive painting and a vivid window into the minds of grieving parents.

A gaming console company invests in That Dragon, Cancer, turning Ryan’s hobby into his family’s sole source of income. Ryan and his small team premiere an early demo at PAX Prime, the biggest gaming conference in the United States, where player after player is moved to tears. Critics cite the game as one of the best at the conference. But in the midst of the game’s success, Joel’s health continues to deteriorate.

“I could lose Joel in the next month or two,” says Ryan, his body wracked with sobs. “I just wish I could hold him right now.”

When the doctors diagnose new tumor growth in Joel, Ryan and Amy move the family to San Francisco to enroll him in a last-resort clinical trial. They document this period to include in the video game, “because you wouldn’t want to not capture it, and know you couldn’t go back,” says Amy. At night, while the family is asleep, Ryan continues working on the game, more determined than ever to encode these last moments with his son. “The most compassionate and fulfilling moments of your life can be in the middle of the deepest loss you can experience. I think that can be beautiful. I hope it’s beautiful.”

For filmmakers David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, Thank You for Playing is an opportunity to challenge people to reexamine their own assumptions about bereavement, technology and video games.

“We wanted to transcend the simple narrative of a family dealing with cancer, and instead examine the ways we handle grief, and the beauty and hope that can be found in art,” they say. “We saw how many people were profoundly moved by Ryan’s game, and how playing it often facilitated more, rather than less, social interaction. The fact that a video game was capable of awakening this sort of empathy astounded us, and we soon realized that Ryan isn’t only a developer, he’s also an artist—and programming is his paintbrush.”

Thank You for Playing Airs on PBS’s POV on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016

About the Game:

That Dragon, Cancer released in January 2016, was developed by Ryan and Amy Green and Josh Larson along with five others at their new studio, Numinous Games. Learn more:

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