How Minecraft Gave us a Space to Grieve
Victoria Bennett & Adam Clarke
Before I write this, there is something I need to confess. I (Victoria) am not a gamer, or a technologist. I am a poet, with a love of old books and ink pens. In fact, I used to be a strong opposer of digital gaming. So, how did a previous ‘anti-gamer’ end up using a digital gaming platform to share one of the hardest and most personal experiences of my life?
Bringing Books and Blocks Together
My conversion to digital gaming was necessity-driven. I wanted to be able to be to support the growing passion for Minecraft that was taking over our household, so instead of opposing, I decided to embrace it. I started to get involved in the research and writing side of the maps and got hooked. When the opportunity to apply to The Writing Platform for a bursary to explore how technology and digital technology could interact and collaborate, we saw a great opportunity to bring together our worlds of poetry and gaming. Our initial work explored the connection between the way a poem is built and the way the blocks are used to build in Minecraft. We experimented with the idea of ‘stanzas’ and ‘rooms’ (the rough translation of stanza meaning ‘room of the poem’). We also hit upon the idea of the labyrinth – that in Minecraft the player is not so much questing for an end point, as navigating a changing landscape to return to the same point, only altered. It was interesting stuff. So far, so good, we thought. This could be exciting. Then everything changed in the short space of a few words.
Can We Talk About Cancer?
My mother was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, an incurable and aggressive cancer caused by asbestos exposure. The prognosis was less than twelve months. I took up the role as advocate and carer. Alongside this, our work continued, but my life was shattering around me. My mother and best friend, was dying. Adam wanted to know if I had any writing for the project. I was faced with an important question: can this be what I write about?
I took that question to Adam. Can a video game like Minecraft expand to hold a narrative like this? Was it ok to talk about cancer and dying with children? Can something as personal as death and grief be explored within a game in any meaningful way, or would it just be derivative and disrespectful? What does it mean to ‘play’, and can ‘play’ accommodate the hard stuff of life? Adam’s response was a whole-hearted ‘yes’. Why? Because if it has integrity, it has validity.
In the end, it came back to the rooms and labyrinths. As my mother and I shared our last months, we often walked around the house together, stopping and sharing stories, prompted by the objects I had grown up with. Here, my mother was present – her life, her stories, her expression of who she was and how she had lived. I knew, too, that one day soon she would be gone, and I would move through these rooms to close up these doors for a last time. It was this that became the foundation for My Mother’s House.
It was an intensely personal piece and Adam and I were going into unchartered territory in creating it as a map. As with most things in our lives, it was our son who helped us take that leap. My mother needed full-time support, so our seven-year-old son was on the front line of cancer care, witnessing the ways in which the disease and drugs demand so much of those we love. He needed to find a way of talking about that experience as much as we did. The place where we could meet was Minecraft. By making the map, we could create a safe space in which our grief could be explored.
A Minecraft Poem
The map begins with entering a fairytale cabin deep in the woods. It is physically shaped by the notion of the labyrinth; each room a space of transition, where the player could remain or move forward, but not return. Each room relates to a stanza of the poem, and to a stage in my mother’s life, and death. The map contains personal mementos from a life – paintings and drawings from sketchbooks; a copy of the poem my father had read to my mother when he proposed; a map of their travels. These items are meaningful in a deeply personal way, but also help the player understand more of the story. With each room, something further is discovered but also let go of, until we reach the attic and the final door, where the house, now empty, is closed up and left behind, the player returning to the magical woods. As the player enters the room, so they trigger the audio and textual poem, but the map is not an illustration of the poem, it is the poem. By exploring the map, the player lives through the poem, experiencing it in a physical way.
The day before the map was released, I sat down with my mother and together we watched the fly-through video. Afterwards, she turned to me and said, ‘when I die, open up the rooms and let the light in’, and from that starting point, we talked about dying, about our fears and sadness, about the unfairness of this too-early ending. Through poetry and a game made of blocks, we were able to cry together, and my son was able to learn about cancer, about how it affected his Nana and his mother, and safely explore some of the feelings he had about saying goodbye.
Connecting Through Gaming
It is nearly two years since my mother died. I miss her every day. Grief comes in waves. My son grows older. We talk about Nana. Sometimes, we cry. It is also two years on from the first release of My Mother’s House. Was it ok to make a Minecraft map about my mother dying? In the end, we decided yes. Putting it out there was scary. It challenged us on so many levels. It breaks tradition with the notion of a ‘game’. It is quiet, slow and demanding. It asks for engagement at an emotional level. Not everyone sees that as a good thing but, the map continues to reach people in unexpected, positive ways. Six months after my mother died, I met a woman who told me it had enabled her to go back and talk with her sister for the first time about their mother’s death from cancer. At Minecon, a young boy of twelve came up and thanked us for doing a map about ‘the serious stuff’. In 2017, we shared the map at Greenbelt Festival to a mixed-age audience. Afterwards, a doctor of palliative medicine talked with us about how it could be used in clinical settings with families facing terminal cancer diagnoses. Other people shared their story of losing a parent to cancer. In July of this year, I was interviewed on the NYC Gimlet Podcast series, looking at groundbreaking, life-changing ways that Minecraft has been used. As we write this, the Writing Platform YouTube video of My Mother’s House has been viewed over seven thousand times.
It was never an easy map but the fact is, the difficult stuff of life doesn’t just happen to adults. Children face death and loss, same as adults. Minecraft, with its intuitive creativity and accessible features, can offer people a way of exploring and sharing these narratives safely. Despite being about closing doors, the map is in fact about opening them. Just as my mother wanted.
The technology of gaming, in Minecraft and other platforms, opens up a new way of engaging with, and reflecting on, our human experiences. These spaces can be more than a game. They can be places of meaningful narratives, exchanges, and connection. They can be spaces of change. These days, that seems more important than ever.
Victoria Bennett & Adam Clarke
Victoria and Adam’s CVs, if they had them, would include, amongst other things, Digital Producer, Global Speaker, Artist, Poet, Publisher, Minecraft Educator, You-Tuber, Creative Activist, Home Educators and Dad and Mum.
Their work, both as artists and parents, is about bringing together their experiences, skills and intentions, to create an inspiring space filled with possibilities, a space that encourages curiosity, creativity, investigation and collaboration, be that real, virtual or on the page. Through their creative work they aim to continue to engage themselves and others in exploring the personal, cultural and social narratives that we build every day.