Death and Games: How Loss Puts Lifelong Hobbies into Perspective

Josiah Renaudin examines the effects a loss of a loved one can have on gaming habits.

I remember the shriek of my mother as she was told the news none of us were prepared to hear. The sound was soon followed by the burning sensation of my knuckles pressing into the aged drywall and two warm drops of blood landing on the pink hallway carpet. I didn’t need an explanation of what had happened, but of course I soon got one. It was the second cardiac arrest that stopped my father’s breathing. I was told it was quick and likely painless, but really, how would anyone still standing ever know what it felt like?

I also vividly remember what I was doing before the news was delivered. My three siblings and I sat in our single room, filling the few moments we had before taking our daily trip to the hospital with a game of Bloody Roar 3 on PlayStation 2. We were less animated than usual, retaining our competitive spirits but never raising our voices above a whisper at the end of a round. We played because games were our main source of entertainment, but as soon as I learned that my dad had passed, the mere thought of grabbing a controller made my stomach turn.

I was 11, but still mature enough to understand that everything was about to change. The weekly trips to the golf course with my dad would have to be replaced with a new activity, and being homeschooled since the first grade by both my parents, it looked like public school would be the only logical next step. Was I prepared for any of it? Not in the least, but I didn’t exactly have the luxury of time on my hands. Life didn’t quite prepare me for the generous helping of responsibility that fell on my lap.

But one thing I didn’t go back to for quite some time was that PS2. It got some use from my two brothers and older sister, but the activity that seemingly shaped my youth felt stale. Actually, it felt wrong. To sit still and just fill this new void with interactive entertainment, at the time, felt unfair to the memory of my dad.

Almost 10 years later, it’s still an issue that I deal with daily. As a college student actively working to break into the industry, most of my free time is dedicated to writing about games instead of actually playing them. I still enjoy ending a long week of work with a few rounds of Call of Duty or Battlefield, but things haven’t quite been the same since that cloudless April morning. But loss isn’t something that’s dealt with in a universal manner, and really, that’s what made me personally reach out to other members of the industry who’ve been forced to put their passion on hold when life decided to kick back.

“In the days and weeks after my father passed, it was easy to question what the hell I was doing with my life until that point. I'd spent all of this time creating a career around writing and caring about video games, but why?” said Patrick Klepek, news editor at Giant Bomb. “It was tough to get bent out of shape about anything related to video games, so even when I was playing them, it was on autopilot, and I couldn't tell you very much about the games I played around then. The cliché was right, though, and eventually those red-hot feelings start to fade, and you begin to care about your passions in the way you did before.”

Klepek lost his father to a sudden heart attack last year, and since that time, has been forced to take a step back and evaluate where life has taken him. His attention was glued to family matters for weeks after the incident, but the death of a loved one, whether sudden or after a hard-fought battle, brings about a great deal of personal reflection.  

“It definitely forced me to think more about what games I spend my time with. Time is precious, an important commodity most players (people?) do not take proper advantage of,” Klepek told me. “I often found myself shrugging at the latest blockbuster shooter schlock being shoveled out. Instead of complaining about why those games aren't better, why not seek out the rest of what games have to offer, and see if those hold more fulfilling experiences?”

To cope with the tragedy, Klepek returned to games in a genre he knew best: horror. A rabid fan of all things dark and chilling, he was able to step away from the difficult events by enjoying his favorite type of media.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent scared the shit out of me, and prompted me to write a story about my relationship with horror games and horror media,” Klepek said. “My preoccupation with a genre that revels in death struck me as something I hadn't given enough thought to. I suspect part of the reason horror holds such an appeal is because you can play out and indulge with fears in a safe environment.

“I've never had anything truly bad happen to me before. Tough relationship breakups, moves across the country, the passing of a loved one–those are bad, sure, but are they really bad, compared to what else happens in the world? Not really. In a weird, unrealistic way, horror helped me cope with the guilt of having a mostly super happy life with no complaints.”

Not every “gamer” needs to step away from what he or she loves in order to make sense of disaster. Maxwell Roahrig, executive editor of StickSkills, spent a few hours with his friends playing the original Halo directly after his father’s funeral.

“As a high school freshman, Halo 1 was the game that I made friends with. It was the common ground,” he said. “Eventually, we started doing tournaments locally, and the core group of us got pretty good. At our huge tourney, my buddies and I took first through third places in the 1v1 tournament.”

Why go right back into gaming after such a life-altering event? For Roahrig, the familiarity of his hobby was a much-needed comfort.

“Really, it was what I knew,” he continued. “It's what I did to take my mind off things. Just sitting there, running around the map with a timer for the overshield right next to me. And after burying my father, I really needed to not think for a while.”

Like Roahrig, I still love video games. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing about them. However, death tends to put almost every aspect of life into perspective. My father’s sudden illness necessitated my quick maturation, and while I don’t believe anyone can truly “grow out of video games,” I did move past playing them for pure pleasure. I needed a deeper reason to keep the controller in my hands, and that’s not just because life seemed a bit shorter than before. The loss I experienced motivated me to take this time-consuming exercise and make it something greater on a personal level. Working to become a journalist in the industry tied video games with work, and since that time, I’ve never felt more kindred to the medium.

Klepek was able to rediscover the passion that’s connected him to this crazy industry for so many years and actually become more involved in genres he’d written off in the past. Roahrig, on the other hand, used gaming to push aside the grief for a stint and take comfort in what was familiar. If anything, that only reminded him how crucial interactive entertainment was to his daily life.

I may never appreciate playing games as I did when I was 11. I just can’t fill that Final Fantasy X Sphere Grid all over again and come out feeling like I accomplished something significant, but after all this time, I think I’ve come to terms with that fact. Death can reshape our most cherished hobbies and passions, and oftentimes, lead us to exciting new avenues. Just make sure it doesn’t stamp out the fire.