How Games Give Grieving Kids Space for Mourning

While the pandemic closed off many traditional mourning rituals, our isolation was a boom for video games and virtual spaces became a safe place to memorialize lost loved ones and connect with other grievers.

According to Baylor University religion professor, Dr. Candi Cann, this was especially impactful for kids.

“I think it is really helpful especially for kids to express their mourning and their grief in these spaces that are part of their lives,” Cann told Solace.

Dr. Cann has spent her career looking at how technology can help create space for grief and memorialization, especially inside video games.

She first became interested in these virtual “spontaneous memorialization rituals” in Minecraft, a game her “kiddo” played where she discovered how it became home to pixel-crafted graveyards for grieving children. Cann saw the same phenomenon again in Animal Crossing with the added benefit for gamers of being among a community of friends.

Minecraft has also been a game of interest to UC Irvine professor Katie Salen Tekinbaş who has been studying games for more than 20 years with an emphasis on young adolescents. She’s a game designer and the co-founder of the nonprofit Connected Camps and is helping design a private Minecraft server for grieving children in partnership with the nonprofit Experience Camps.

Anonymity and community

Just like other interest-based learning, Salen Tekinbaş explains that kids going through grief can use games and other tech tools to connect, find and share information, but with the added bonus of anonymity when desired. “What is especially important for young people about online technology is that it provides a place for them to gain information and support in ways that are relatively safe and anonymous. They can ‘get their feelings out’ while also seeing what others are going through. Finding a sense of community online helps youth feel less alone.”

Real spaces

Ten years ago we might have thought of online and “real life” as separate places and adults may make more of a distinction than kids, Cann explains, but that’s changing, especially with the pandemic’s impacts. “Online spaces are very real spaces. They provide communities of support and a lot that we may not get in our real-life spaces. Some people feel safer and it can supplement our real life now. I think it is super valuable.”

A shared experience

Salen Tekinbaş says parents don’t always understand what’s happening during their kids’ online experiences. “When a parent watches their child play a game, for example, they often key in on what they see onscreen — a virtual character battling some monster or running around with a bunch of other avatars. What isn’t as easy to see is that those activities are the basis for a set of shared experiences that provide a springboard for social connection,” she said.

Games of grief

It isn’t just kids that are using games to process grief. Cann says though some of the games she’s studied challenge the very idea of what a game is — or should be — they demonstrate a rich experience available to kids and adults alike grappling with death and grief in a time where the “real world” and virtual worlds are growing ever closer together.

She is now watching with interest several games that bring more intentionality to the journeys of death and grief.

In one example, the awarding-winning game, “Before Your Eyes,” follows the recently deceased Benjamin Brynn as he makes his way to the afterlife. It is played in augmented reality, using your eyes instead of a mouse or joystick to control the action.

“I love this game because it is generating an imagined ‘life review’ as this person is dying and then it walks you through what that life review looks like and how someone might feel about the life they’ve lived and the choices they made. I think it is really beautiful and valuable and really makes you embrace this one short life you’ve been given.”

Allowing grievers to ‘sit in sorrow’

In another game, “That Dragon, Cancer” the Green family created a virtual experience mirroring their real journey with son Joel who died of cancer.

“‘This Dragon, Cancer’ is a game that walks with you in pain and suffering,” Cann says, and it really challenges our idea of what a game should be. She says she loves it because it allows people to “sit in their sorrow” and know that they are not alone. It also gave the parent creators an outlet to memorialize their son Joel, Cann explains.

In a third game, Mandagon, players travel through a mystical world inspired by Tibetan Buddhism. Players are trying to work through the different bardos, or stages of dying, in order to be reborn. Cann likes this game because it replicates the afterlife imaginaries of the religion.

“We know that one way young people process grief is by finding connections with others. They need opportunities to share thoughts and emotions, see what others are going through, and to find similarities in others’ experiences. These online environments are just places where kids can do all of these things,” Salen Tekinbaş explained to Solace.

These virtual worlds are “here to stay and whether you like it or not,” Cann says, and “are going to be expanding exponentially. I’m excited to see the possibilities.”

Dr. Candi Cann currently serves as an Associate Professor and Faculty of Residence at Baylor University. Her research focuses on death and dying, and the impact of remembering (and forgetting) in shaping how lives are recalled, remembered, and celebrated.

Professor Katie Salen Tekinbaş works at the intersection of games, design and learning, bridging the gap between academia and industry to create practical, real-world platforms that better educate and empower the next generation.

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