In an early demo of the video game That Dragon, Cancer, a certain moment struck a nerve for one user. “We had a player who got to the point where she had to press pray,” said codeveloper Josh Larson. She said, “I can’t keep playing. I put myself in the player’s shoes, and I wouldn’t do that if it were me.”

Larson and Ryan Green are Christians developing That Dragon, Cancer, a game that aims to convey Green’s experience raising his son, Joel, who died of cancer last year at age 5. Where a writer might convey that experience with words, Green and Larson are doing so in a video game.

Given the common image of video games—violent, trivial diversions—the idea of creating one about a personal tragedy may seem strange. But Green and Larson are contributing to a growing genre known as “empathy games.” Players don’t attain goals or overcome obstacles as much as empathize with characters on a significant life journey. This genre has allowed Christians to make inroads in an industry traditionally indifferent—if not hostile—to faith.

In the most recent demo of That Dragon, Cancer, the player begins the game by controlling a duck swimming after breadcrumbs thrown into the water. When the perspective shifts to one of Joel’s brothers, the player hands the bread to Joel to feed the ducks. Joel then throws the entire loaf in the water. It’s a funny and touching moment, and the player feels glad to have been there for it.

From there, the player wanders through a forest, at times feeling lost, and eventually stumbles onto a playground where she can push Joel on a swing or catch him at the bottom of a slide. The demo is tinged with ...

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