Tribeca Film Festival 2015: Thank You For Playing

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From the moment his baby son Joel was diagnosed with terminal cancer, game developer Ryan Green struggled to wrap his head around why this was happening and how his family would live with it. As time went on, he and his wife Amy got used to the hospital visits, the treatments, and seeing their tiny child hooked up to all those machines. Their other sons adjusted to the idea that their brother was fighting to stay alive, and the odds weren’t in his favor. How did Ryan cope in the face of such a devastating, unexplainable tragedy? To borrow the words of Neil Gaiman, he made good art, specifically a video game titled That Dragon, Cancer.

Thank You For Playing splits its focus between Joel’s ongoing treatments and their impact on the family, and Ryan working with his creative team on the design and mechanics of the game. Viewers who aren’t familiar with game design and mechanics need not worry, as the film explains everything necessary with examples from That Dragon, Cancer. It is a non-traditional game in many ways. The purpose isn’t to earn points, get through the game quickly, or kill a dragon. Instead, Ryan uses the medium to put a player into the mindset of his family and better understand their unique life experience. Some moments are sweet. Players take Joel to the park and push him on the swing or feed the ducks. Other moments make the player feel helpless. Joel cries out, or the player watches over him as he goes through another round of radiation.

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That Dragon, Cancer is an anomaly in the larger gaming culture, dominated by FPSs (first-person shooters) and MMOs (massively multiplayer online games). Nowhere is this more apparent than when Ryan takes an early demo of That Dragon, Cancer to a video game convention. The visual alone is striking. Hidden among the booth babes and flashy displays is Ryan’s demo booth, a quiet space with a few computers and headphones. All around are games with photo-realistic imagery and all the bells and whistles that big-budget games can buy, but most of them never truly engage the player or make them feel anything. After playing the demo, one young man leaves but not before wiping away his tears and giving Ryan a hug. In that moment, the filmmakers show why the gaming industry needs developers like Ryan and that video games can affect people as an art form in ways that that other mediums cannot.

Thank You For Playing could have been a documentary about a family with a sick kid, a documentation of Joel Green’s short life, or a man of faith trying to understand how a loving God could allow this to happen to his son. In a way, it is all of these things, but more than that, it is about art. It is about why people like Ryan create art, video games or otherwise. They do it to understand their circumstances, to explore what is difficult and painful, to express their emotions in a cathartic way, to bring comfort to other families like the Greens, and to help others to understand. Roger Ebert once said that the movies are a “machine that generates empathy.” Thank You For Playing and That Dragon, Cancer both strive for that lofty goal, to allow a person to see, hear, and experience in a small way for themselves what it is like to love and lose a child to cancer.

May
26
2015
Rachel Kolb • Staff Writer

I love movies, writing, and breaking into song in public. You can follow me on Twitter @rachelekolb or check out more of my work at http://rachelekolb.wordpress.com.

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