God, cancer, a videogame: Did WIRED dig deep enough into the facts of this mystery?

I have had the following debate several times with editors over the past 40 years or so, while working on news features or columns about religious issues and the believers involved in them.

In terms of reaching mainstream readers, an audience that is both secular and religious, which of the following two methods is best?

When writing the final version of the piece, should you include lots of specific facts and information about the religious beliefs and practices of the people involved, for the simple reason that these details are crucial to their lives and, thus, the story?

Or maybe you need to turn that around. Should you write about their faith in a very general way, so that more readers have a chance to get involved in the story without baggage or prejudices? After all, saying that a story focuses on a circle of "evangelical" Christians will turn off people who are angered by that whole "evangelical" thing.

For many people, this is another version of the old debate between "spiritual" storytelling and "religion" news.

Let's look at a perfect example of this debate in practice. I'm interested in how readers react to the decisions that writer Jason Tanz and the editors at WIRED made while producing the absolutely wrenching feature story called "Playing for Time." The kicker for that headline: A father, a dying son, and the quest to build the most profound videogame ever."

Yes, once again we are dealing with another "theodicy" story that revolves around ultimate questions about God, pain, evil, sickness and death -- when bad things happen to good people. The people at the center of the story are videogame pro Ryan Green, his wife Amy and Josh Larson, the co-designer of the game called "That Dragon, Cancer."

In the story we learn that they are Christians and they live in Loveland, Colo. We learn that their faith is at the center of this story and, here's the key, it has shaped the increasingly famous videogame that grew out of the failed struggle to save their baby boy, Joel. Here is a key chunk of the story, where Tanz meets the key players at the PAX Prime expo in Seattle:

Green showed a demo of his game here in 2013, and you’ve heard the stories. Players breaking down in sobs and quickly exiting the booth. The emergency box of Kleenex, hastily procured and placed next to the monitors. The soothing reassurances to distraught gamers. ...
Enter the booth. There are two monitors on a table. Players sit before them, silently steering through the latest demo. Here is what they see: a young boy, his facial features obscured, feeding bread crumbs to a duck, while his parents explain to his brothers why his treatment has left him unable to speak at age 2; a man sitting at a picnic table, ruminating on what his son must be experiencing without the words to express it; a playground, where the boy rocks on a toy horse, swings, giggles, spins on a carousel, then disappears; a path to a beach, where the boy is now strapped to a gurney, his tiny body hooked up to machines, the water filled with bobbing, gnarled tumors; the shadow of a dragon against the sea; a flight through the window of a hospital; a doctor telling the family that a recent MRI shows the boy’s tumors have returned; a nurse assuring them that the staff is very good at end-of-life care; the boy’s parents sitting still and silent while the room fills with water; the boy, now sitting in a rowboat, wearing a tiny life jacket that doesn’t look sufficient to protect him.
You know you will have to play this game at some point. You will have to confront all of these moments, and many more. But not yet. Instead, you find the bespectacled man wearing a narrow-brimmed straw fedora and a close-cut red beard. This is Ryan Green. Hold out your hand and share a sad smile, a silent acknowledgment of what you both know -- what Green himself didn’t know when he started working on That Dragon, Cancer, what he didn’t know the first time he brought it here to PAX. You know how the game ends. You know that Joel dies.

Now, all I am going to do now is offer you a few chunks of the story that are directly linked to the religious content of this excellent, excellent story.

The question: Do you need or want to know more?

I have heard from GetReligion readers on both sides of this debate. Everyone knows that the story is amazing. Readers may need a box of tissues. The question is whether the WIRED team made the right decision to ...

Well, read on:

Amidst all the plasma guns and power-ups, it can be easy to overlook the fact that videogames are inherently metaphysical exercises. Designing one is like beta-testing a universe. Its creators encode it with algorithms, maps, and decision trees, then invite players to decipher its hidden logic. Intentionally or not, games contain implicit messages about purpose, free will, the afterlife. Master the secret rhythms of Super Mario Bros. and you can deliver the eponymous plumber to a princely paradise. But even the best Space Invadersplayer is fated to end the game in defeat, another futile circuit in its samsara-like cycle of death and rebirth.
In a 2011 lecture titled “Truth in Game Design,” developer Jonathan Blow declared that games were a unique platform through which to explore the mysteries of the universe. “We can come to the game with question after question after question and type in some code and get answer after answer after answer,” he said. “And if we’re tapping into the right thing, then the volume of answers available to us can actually be quite large.” Blow, whose time-bending puzzle game Braid was a breakout hit, was speaking mostly of questions pertaining to theoretical physics and advanced mathematics. The questions That Dragon, Cancer is asking, on the other hand, are the kind of spiritual and existential quandaries that have haunted humanity since Job: Why are we here? Can we influence our fate? What kind of God would allow such suffering? How do we endure the knowledge that we, along with everyone we have ever met and loved, will die?

Like I said, welcome to "Theodicy: The Videogame."

A crucial point is when the Greens decide to change the actual direction of their professional work and focus both on this game and the creation of other "meaningful" games like it.

Note the actual theology that begins to enter the discussion:

For Green, that meant making games that explored religious themes. He started doing full-time contract work for Soma Games, a Newberg, Oregon-based developer of Christian videogames. In late 2010 he met Larson, an indie-game veteran from Des Moines, Iowa. Larson, another devoted Christian, had been spending time on a “not-games” forum, an online discussion for developers interested in avoiding all the usual game-like trappings—the puzzles and quests and levels -- to discover what else the medium might be capable of. I Wish I Were the Moon was a clickable tone poem about lost love. Proteus had players wander around an interactive landscape. Larson says his interest in not-games was purely intellectual, not spiritual, but the effort to move beyond performance-based reward systems seems to track with some of his deeply held philosophical beliefs. “The idea of grace is that you don’t have to do something good to earn your salvation,” he says. “People are always so concerned about what you do in a game, and they can be that way about life too. Whereas some people, depending on what kind of faith they have or what kind of person they are, that’s not necessarily what defines them.”

We need one or two more images from the game itself. There is this console built into the game, you see, where players try to make things work, to make things better. Then there is this devastating image:

After a few minutes, the camera would pan up to reveal the back of the console, its wires frayed and disconnected. The levers were false, the game’s designer was in charge, and you were forced to acknowledge that you were powerless to control the outcome.
That conclusion arose directly from the Greens’ religion, their belief that God’s will was beyond human comprehension, that we are operating within a divine plan that we may or may not have the power to influence. Even as they pursued every medical option, their agony was somewhat relieved by the conviction that Joel’s fate was ultimately in God’s hands. “With God we don’t have to do the right things or say the right things to somehow ‘earn’ his healing,” Amy wrote in an online diary soon after Joel’s first biopsy.

The conclusion grew directly out of "the Greens' religion." Yes, we can see that.

Do we need to know more? What about that passage in which C.S. Lewis -- there's a key name for you -- deals with issues of grief and loss?

Then it turns out that the image of the control panel is not the final act in the drama. Players actually enter a cathedral and are surrounded by the sound of prayers:

These are the actual prayers that Ryan, Amy, and their friends sang and whispered and screamed the last night of Joel’s life, prayers that were not answered. “Please!” you hear a voice bellow. “Return this boy’s soul to his body!”

Do you want to know more? Do you need facts and labels?

Does the lack of specific information help this story, as a piece of mainstream journalism, or hurt it? Please leave us some comments.

First image: From Numinous Games

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