This year (2016) has essentially started out like a sucker punch for those of us who are fans of pop culture. This week has seen the deaths of two of the men whose work in pop culture was formative for me–David Bowie and Alan Rickman (if I ever had a celebrity crush, it was Alan Rickman). This week I have also seen repeated posts about the indie game That Dragon, Cancer (yes, both Bowie and Rickman died of cancer at age 69), which seems dismally appropriate.
I have not played the game. I don’t know if I will. However, a lot of people have been saying a lot of positive things about how the game has helped them to work through their own emotional experiences of losing a loved one or enabling them to empathize with others or to deal with their own struggle with illness.
And then there are the trolls. Destructoid featured a story today by Jed Whitaker about how certain people on the internet have essentially lost their right to be human beings by being horrible examples thereof.
The game is about a family’s struggle in losing their son to cancer, a deeply personal experience that led to their desire to produce a game about that experience–to do what many people do when they have a deeply emotional experience, which is to say, to make art about it. This is something people have been doing since people were capable of making art of any kind. It is a perfectly reasonable and perfectly human response.
It is also a perfectly human response to want to share that art with other humans. Sharing that art might help the artists to release tension and let go of grief. It might help other people going (or who have gone) through a similar process to cope with their own grief. It might help explain to others what their grief is like. And, yes, it might make them money. That is a thing that art does, when shared and distributed to the public.
And yet you don’t see people lining up to lambast the authors of books on cancer for “selling out.” You don’t see entire forum threads dedicated to John Nash that A Beautiful Mind shouldn’t have been made. But this is the gaming community, and apparently that means that basic human decency is of less concern. Whitaker notes:
One locked thread called, “That Dragon, Cancer, an obvious cash-in on feel-marketing” states, “It’s always nice to get money out of a tragedy. I hope you people get happy by the loads of money you will receive. Cashing in on cancer, now that’s capitalism at it’s finest.” Another person asks, “Will there be DLC or expansions if another one of their family members gets cancer?” Many other threads complain of the religious themes found in the game as the family uses faith to deal with some of their hardships.
It’s a personal game. I may not share the family’s religious beliefs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have every right to include them in a game that they made about themselves. They have the right to make the art they want and to sell the art they made, irrespective of the event or events that instigated the production of that art. Whitaker asks, “To those who feel this family is cashing in on their son’s death I have to wonder, would they have been okay with the story if it were fiction?” And if the answer were “yes,” then the accusation would be that the creators are exploiting someone else’s pain… there is literally no way to win in this situation (not least of which is because we’re talking about a child dying of cancer, by the way).
This isn’t to say that everyone on the forums is a complete jerk, but it does say a lot about the kind of community gaming fosters if those people–undoubtedly the same ones who cry about “censorship” when women and people of color ask for more representation–are comfortable being vocal with their inhumane remarks. I’ll end with Whitaker’s apt closing:
How can people act this way, trolling or not? What kind of sick person gets their kicks from harassing people who opened themselves up to the public in ways many people would never dare? To quote one of the trolls, “This is absolutely, without a doubt, the most heartless thing I have seen, in an incredibly long time.”