Business Record | Artist uses gaming to help cancer patients

Posted on Aug 2, 2018 in Artists, Creative Class News, Events, MAINFRAME News

BY PERRY BEEMAN, Managing Editor
Thursday, August 2, 2018 1:39 PM

This Friday, Mainframe Studios’ monthly open house will feature doses of virtual reality, gaming and co-host Josh Larson’s Numinous Games, which helps cancer patients among others.

The company’s latest release is “Galaxies of Hope,” developed for Novartis Pharmaceuticals and described as “a content-rich, poetic, and interactive digital experience which presents a new and unique way for neuroendocrine tumor cancer patients, caregivers and physicians to learn more about the emotional course of this disease.”

The free event, “60 fps,” will run 4 to 9 p.m. at 900 Keosauqua Way, where Mainframe’s resident artists will open their studios for public visits.

Larson, 35, is from Panora and now lives in Norwalk. He has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a minor in entrepreneurship from Iowa State University.

How did you get into gaming related to cancer patients?
It started with “That Dragon, Cancer.” In late 2012, Ryan Green and I started developing a video game to share his family’s journey fighting cancer with his son, Joel. A five- to 10-minute demo we shared with developers and press garnered more and more interest from the industry, and eventually we landed funding to develop the full game, which allowed us to build an experienced team. Ryan’s wife, Amy, a talented writer and speaker, even joined.

My experience both as Ryan’s friend and as co-director on “That Dragon, Cancer” gave me a unique perspective on fighting cancer as a family and as a community. We were privileged in that our work was critically praised, which gained us acceptance into many game festivals. Our funding grew to include a marketing grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and that allowed us to attend those festivals and share our game with thousands of gaming enthusiasts. While we were there, we witnessed firsthand how much pain people trap within themselves once they stand face-to-face with death. Our culture doesn’t provide enough opportunities to share that pain with others, so I’m grateful that we could provide an outlet for so many.

Once we released “That Dragon, Cancer” in 2016, we saw that sharing expand online. YouTube videos of people playing our video game have surpassed 20 million views, and in the comments of those videos you can read people remembering loved ones, supporting each other, and coming together in fellowship.

Over the years, Ryan, Amy and I have been able to speak at conferences around the world to share our experience with this project. Meeting oncologists, researchers, game developers and other professionals exposed us to a deep need within health care to use our work for training, therapy and community building. We are now working to fill that need.

What is your goal?
Our goal is to help people love each other better. Video games are fundamentally structured to invite players to enter a strange land and wonder what the meaning of their life is all about. We believe that search for meaning can create profound experiences.

Here’s an example. A player’s ability to make choices is a form of questioning. So through careful design, we can design a conversation about life and death, and prompt players to search for meaning by choosing which parts of the conversation to listen to. We can then use the immersive nature of video games to create a sense of presence and intimacy in that conversation. If players feel like they are really sitting next to a family having that conversation, the intimacy and weight of that moment are very striking and something that’s hard to forget. Our hope is that the memory of that virtual moment will linger with someone in the real world, and the next time they talk about life and death, they’ll think differently about it and treat others differently.

Can you tell us about your professional life?
I co-founded Numinous Games and own it with my partner, Ryan Green. We started it just over five years ago. My title is assistant creator. Depending on the day, my role is as a creative director, game designer, art director, speaker, CEO, CFO and more. As usual with a small team, we wear many hats.

What are you hoping will happen Friday?
With the help of Siobhan [Spain] at Mainframe and Joe [Stilwell] at New Capital Gaming, we’re organizing “60 fps” to celebrate the local gaming and illustration community.

About 10 years ago, I became part of the “indie games” community. It’s a very inclusive and supportive community of game developers helping each other live out a passion for making games. There was a problem, though. This community is global, and in the U.S., most indie developers live in big cities. I really wanted to have a community like this in the Des Moines area, where I live and work. So over the next several years, I helped organize many game jams (they’re like a hackathon or Startup Weekend) in Iowa in an attempt to gather a community, but it didn’t work and I got burnt out.

However, within the last year I discovered some local developers had started a Des Moines chapter for [International Game Developers Association], the gaming industry’s trade organization. It seemed like there was finally a small group of developers committed to the chapter, so I started looking for ways to celebrate and promote this up-and-coming community. I was hoping I could do that here at Mainframe Studios, where I work. Eventually Siobhan suggested having a First Friday event focused on the work Numinous does, and I realized this was my chance. That’s when “60 fps” was born. [The name refers to frames per second, a common rate for computer monitors.]

For this first event, we’re starting small. It will be an expo with about 20 vendors. Most of them will be showcasing video games, including [virtual reality, or VR] but there are also streaming personalities, tabletop developers, illustrators and a handful of custom-built arcade cabinets.

The arcade cabinets have surprised me the most, I think. Arcade cabinets for indie games are relatively rare, and bespoke custom-built cabinets for indie games are even more rare. And yet we have not one but two organizations here in Des Moines building them: DSM Arcade [Dan Fessler] and New Capital Gaming.

What inspires me so much about both organizations is that they share my passion to teach the potential of video games to the general public. Most people don’t realize what video games are capable of. Their conception of video games fits within a shoe box, or for some, within a little smartphone. But video games are much bigger than that. And I’m not simply speaking as an industry. Yes, esports are now bigger than regular season NFL. Yes, in the U.S. the games industry is now larger than movies, TV, and books combined. I mean how they can actually add value to our lives. Video games don’t just have to be a way to use up some free time. They can delight us, fill us with wonder and awe, inspire personal transformation, provoke social change, and many other things art has accomplished for hundreds of years now.