Finding the right games to play during the worst time in your life

Gaming can be an effective, even empowering escape for people of all ages undergoing cancer treatment — but how do you find the right types of games to play to get away?

That was the subject of a SXSW panel titled Surviving Cancer with Games and Community, which discussed the power of interactive entertainment in easing the worst parts of enduring an illness. That’s the main mission statement of The Survivor Games, a non-profit founded by Steven Gonzalez, who used games to get through his treatment for AML Leukemia and connect with other survivors when he was just 12 years old.

Panelist Eddie Gonzalez-Novoa, the executive director for The Survivor Games, explained that working with hospitals to equip their cancer treatment centers with gaming equipment and connecting gaming survivors is an important part of the non-profit’s mission statement. But all of that is predicated on finding the right types of games that can bring people in treatment together in the first place.

When he first joined The Survivor Games, Gonzalez-Novoa asked Gonzalez what types of games he preferred to play, and learned that avoiding dark subject matter was an important consideration.

“he didn’t play anything with blood or death”

“When I asked him then games he wouldn’t play — I’m not sure if you’ll even remember this — he didn’t play anything with blood or death,” Gonzalez-Novoa said. “Because even movies like Airplane! was just too intense, because it had this scene with a little girl on an IV, which is hilarious, unless you’re a little boy on an IV.”

“I watched that and was like, mmm, no. Let’s just put on Short Circuit,” Gonzalez said.

“You don’t know when stuff like that is going to sneak up and just freak you out,” Gonzalez-Novoa added.

cod advanced warfare

It wasn’t just the subject matter of the games and movies that make people undergoing cancer treatment cautious, Gonzalez-Novoa said. He polled a number of young people undergoing chemotherapy about the games they preferred to play, and learned that some genres were too exhausting or too reflex-intensive to play while in treatment.

“One survivor, who was 19 years old when he was diagnosed, stopped playing first-person shooters, and I assumed it was for the same reason,” Gonzalez-Novoa said. “But Steven asked, ‘Why?’ And he explained that the chemotherapy had slowed his response time, and his thumbs couldn’t move fast enough and it just got frustrating.”

“his thumbs couldn’t move fast enough and it just got frustrating”

“You can’t have your K/D spread take a hit because of that,” Gonzalez joked.

“It never occurred to me, honestly, I thought it was because those games have blood and death. But that wasn’t the issue for him; it was that he couldn’t play it fast enough,” Gonzalez-Novoa said.

Panelist Justin Reynard, former programmer at Fallout: New Vegas developer Obsidian Entertainment and current CTO for LA startup Karma Labs, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2007. He suffered from a level of exhaustion that kept him from doing the things he’d rather be doing while he was in treatment, affecting both his coding and his gaming habits.

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He found that the isolation his treatment required led him to play more interconnected, social console games, which were still relatively in their infancy at the time.

“That’s why I played Final Fantasy 11 — or tried to,” Reynard said. “One, there’s no reaction time, it’s mostly menu driven, so I could play it without worrying about slowing down. But also, I played that game for 10 years, so I made a lot of real-life friends — one of whom I just lost recently to cancer — and I played that game just to hang out with them. I wanted to be in chat. I could be in my apartment, by myself, on my couch, with my dog and just be with my friends on the internet.

“I also think games like that, role-playing games like that and stuff like Pokémon, allow you to get better as you play, so you feel like you’re making progress in your life — even though it’s in your digital life.”

RPGs like Pokémon and other turn-based genres are the perfect example of the type of game that suits the needs of cancer survivors. Most gamers in treatment have a lot of time on their hands, but very little energy, meaning they need long form experiences that don’t require an overabundance of twitchy input. Pokémon in particular was a major part of Gonzalez recovery; he played the series constantly on his original “brick-like” Nintendo DS, and it served as a way for him to get to know his fellow young patients.

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Despite the fact that their gaming preferences changed by necessity during their respective treatments, Gonzalez and Reynard emphasized that it in no way solidified their preferences for the rest of their lives. Today, one of Gonzalez’s favorite series is Darksiders, which doesn’t only focus on Death, it casts him in a leading role. Reynard still prefers social experiences, but also plays twitchier online games like Destiny, and isn’t nearly as bothered by death in the media he consumes.

“The strangest thing is that I’ve gone back — I don’t think I did it during my chemo, but before and after, I really liked violent horror films,” Reynard said. “I expected, if you had asked me during chemo, if I would ever go back to it after, I would have said no. But the movies and video games, things like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, that kind of stuff, I still think is awesome. It didn’t affect me.”

“I believe it has to do with, when you come out of something like cancer, you can turn it — if you really survive it — into such a win,” Reynard added. “The negativity doesn’t have to carry over.”