When my nephew died last year, a few weeks after his fifteenth birthday, the resulting emotional storm of torment, frustration and regret was impossible to process.  Oddly, like a storm, there was a strange peace to be found at the centre of it all. 

For me, it was having purpose that created this peace. Just as there was a kind of serenity of purpose in the time I spent with him in life, there was a solace in doing something in his memory after he had passed.

At first, these purposeful duties were obvious; supporting family, preparing for the funeral, writing eulogies and so on. All activities that are part of society’s well-trodden grieving process, and which have evolved to help all participants make peace with death. 

But when the life lost is one barely lived, nothing seems like enough.

So, with Michael in mind, I resolved to do more. I wrote a short story about the beginning of Michael’s adventures after death, which made me feel like he still exists in some respect every time I read it (I plan to write more). I’ve also taken every opportunity to speak openly about my time with Michael, for reasons that I hope make sense.

I’ve reflected endlessly on the nature of his journey in this life, what can be learned from it, how Michael can be remembered, and especially the sheer, overwhelming humanity that I witnessed from all quarters during this time.

Of course,the greatest recognition must go to the day-to-day heroism of the nurses, doctors and therapists whose job it is to build relationships with dying children and are then expected to continue to work – and to care – after their patients have gone. I work in healthcare, those are my people. I know what is expected of them, of us.

But what has surprised me is the outpouring of altruism and kindness from other quarters. People from different walks of life who have leveraged their talents and time to create and capture moments of happiness and to shed light on those moments. I’ve come to realise how important that is and how it contributes to the sharing of the burden of grief.

Not a Game

It was that surprise and realisation that led me to write my Open Letter to Frontier and Friends last year, which became a Guardian article, ‘How a video game community filled my nephew’s final days with joy‘. From there, the story spread and drew the attention of Jose Gomez, a Spanish director who was working on a documentary project which focused on the profound impact video games have on society, childhood development and health. His London-based production team, Villa Lunera, approached me about including Michael’s story in their film and I agreed.

I’ve seen the almost finished version of this 90 minute opus, and I am very proud to have contributed to what is a broad, powerful, upsetting, and honest look at the risks and the value of video games. I am excited and anxious to take part in the conversations I hope it will spark on its release in the coming weeks.

Watch the trailer here:

Not a Game Documentary – Trailer from Villa Lunera Films on Vimeo.

This Game Changed My Life

Almost concurrently, Nathan Jones, a producer for BBC Sounds, approached me about participating in a pilot podcast called This Game Changed My Life. 

We recorded the episode in September 2019 and it transpired to be an incredibly therapeutic experience which, with the help of the wonderfully irreverent and understanding presenters Julia Hardy and Aoife Wilson, helped me focus on the joyful times Michael and I shared. 

The pilot led to a series being commissioned and is also due for imminent release (late Feb/March 2020). I look forward to you hearing the episode about Michael’s and my adventures in Elite Dangerous (apologies in advance for the terrible piloting tutorial), as well as the other episodes which sound like they will be an absolutely riveting listen.

Healthy Debate

In the coming weeks, I intend to write more on the topics raised in both of these projects, discussing the myriad issues that will be raised by the many stories of how video games are woven into the fabric of our lives for good or for ill.

I accept that some aspects will be divisive and emotive, but I think the coming together of the above projects may herald an opportunity to examine the potential merits of video games and the communities around them as well as safeguard against the potential pitfalls.

For me, despite Michael’s death, the experience of engaging with video game producers and the media has been inspiring and empowering. There’s a cynical view that I accept some people might hold that there may be a degree of exploitation or opportunism taking place here. I would disagree: if organisations that have time and resources for human problems were always the ones that thrived, then the world will be a better place for it. Opportunism and the opportunity to do something good are not the same thing.

I think that the more life beats us down, the greater the urge to withdraw, to become cynical and bitter; to expect little of others; to be defeated by our own existence. But altruism, openness and empathy from unexpected quarters have been the antidotes to my malaise and I continue to be grateful to all those who have engaged with the difficult subject matter and given life and positivity to Michael’s memory. The world needs more of this and video game communities could be a conduit.

It’s clear that video games have the power to do great harm or great good and there are so many stories out there to learn from. I would love to shed more light on these life-changing experiences, I’d really like to hear how video games have affected your life. 

Share your story below if you feel comfortable to, or if you prefer, use your own platform and send me a link.

Alternatively get in touch by email at mat westhorpe.net, or on Twitter @freebooted, and let’s have the conversation.