Video Gaming Shows Its Spiritual Side at PAX Prime

"Jesus came to PWN the Devil and save the world for YOU."

Aug 31 2014, 6:17pm

Image: still from That Dragon Cancer

Given the would-be guerrilla warfare currently being waged over the perceived issue of press/game developer over-intimacy, I'll state that right here on the showroom floor of the gaming convention PAX Prime, I feel compelled to hug a game developer.

The developer in question is Ryan Green, creator of the video game That Dragon Cancer. The game is about Green, Green's wife, and their infant son Joel's battle with terminal cancer. Green started the game a year and a half ago, when Joel was still struggling with the disease. Joel died last March.

As I'm speaking to Green about his game and its origins, it's very apparent that the developer is on the verge of tears. He notes, however, that working on the game, in which the player actually assumes the role of Green himself in taking care of Joel, has been a healing experience for him.

"We started working on this game when Joel was still alive," he says. "And when you're beating the dragon, there's a certain bravado in it: 'We're still here, we're still fighting it.' But for me it's been harder coming to these conventions because, uh, the dragon got us this time."

"I get to make it my occupation to memorialize my son," Green says.

The game includes candid audio taken off family video recordings of Joel and the Green family. "I want people to know what Joel was like," he explains. "I want to encode a piece of him in this."

Despite the fact that the game is based on his own experiences, Green tells me that some people have questioned the meaning of such an unusual endeavor.

Related: The Penny Arcade eXpo Tries to Grow Up, With Awkward Results

"Most people really don't understand why we're doing it," Green says, "until they experience it. So I think the criticism is that they haven't seen what we're up to. It's a kneejerk reaction. I hope people will understand that we're not just trying to drag people through the mud. It's the story of my son's life. It's beautiful."

Green explains that there are a lot of moments of silliness and laughter in the game—you even play as a duck at one point, floating on a pond, observing Green and his son on the shore talking to each other. I take a turn.

Finally, in the game, I am called on to pray.

My role in the game demo is as Green on one particular night taking care of his son. There are still some technical issues with the game, with the player-character Green at one point sitting in the air and then stuck inside of a table, but it's clear that a new frontier for the medium is being opened up here. Finally, in the game I—as Green—am called on to pray.

"We're Christians, and I can't untangle my spirituality from my life," he tells me after the demo. "But this isn't a message game."

The PAX Prime showroom floor is a strange place to find two grown men talking about God, especially considering that a few hundred feet away men and women are donning padded honey badger and bear costumes and wrestling each other in a cage while a crowd done up as magical schoolgirls and Judge Dredds cheers them on.

But talking about God makes me recall an earlier encounter with a promoter who had called out to me from his booth as I walked by: "Jesus loves you!"

Leaving Green, I head back toward the Jesus booth. On the way I pass some other game's promotional oxygen bar where attendees are quietly sitting in a circle with rubber hospital tubes stuck up their nostrils breathing scented air. At my destination, I start browsing through what I think is a parody of a religious tract meant to advertise a game, complete with a depiction of Jesus on the cover wearing a gamer headset and holding an Xbox controller:

"But wait!" the promo booklet reads, "How can you be a Christian and kill zombies, cast spells and shoot someone?!?" Isn't that hypocritical!?!? It's unfortunate that it's even a topic. We're ALL hypocrites. Every last human."

Wait a second. I flip further into the book …

"Jesus loves Gamers. Jesus came to PWN the Devil and save the world for YOU."

Holy shit. This is no game advertisement. This is the real deal. My soul is in danger of being saved.

"We came here for two reasons," Chris Gwaltney, Gamechurch's Director of Missions says to me from the other side of the booth. "To give you free stuff and to tell you Jesus loves you." The free stuff is the usual table swag: branded lavalieres, buttons and stickers—as well as the book I have been reading: Jesus, FOR THE WIN!

Maybe the assumption that Christians would be bigoted against the LGBT community is a little unfair, but one of the first things I ask them is whether they had any issue with the Diversity Lounge around the corner.

"We've talked about putting our own booth over there," Gwaltney tells me. "Who needs to hear Jesus loves them more than them? Because of how negative they've felt. Who needs to hear it more?

Gwaltney explains that Gamechurch is not affiliated with any particular church. It is an all volunteer organization and the volunteers come from a variety of denominations. Advocating against the LGBT community isn't on the Gamechurch agenda. 

"We're here," Gwaltney says. "Jesus loves you. Free stuff. That's it."