How I’m using games to process the loss of a loved one

She was 95 and had struggled with dementia in her final years.

It’s not that she lost her memory. She did remember, quite vividly, past events. But those memories became gradually jumbled.

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It was subtle at first.

Since I can remember, she enjoyed telling us kids stories about people from her village.

👵🏼 Did I tell you about that time when the school examiner asked Batestín what’s the capital of Italy?

🧒🏼 Yes nonna, he answered “Venice” and failed the exam…

👵🏼 Indeed haha, poor Batestín. He was the son of that lady from the other valley. And his uncle was…

It was always clear that those people were long gone, so we couldn’t know them personally, but she would make sure we had a full picture of their family trees.

Then we started noticing that she would recall those same people, but as if she met them recently, almost implying they were still around.

👵🏼 Do you remember Batestín?

🧔🏼 Nonna, I think he died years before I was born.

👵🏼 Don’t think so. I saw him last year. He was drunk as usual, hobbling up the road.

Time became an increasingly malleable matter. Typical signposts like “many years ago”, “a few weeks back” or “the other day” had lost their conventional meaning when she told those stories.

If her memories were once tightly knitted together through the relentless weaving of stories and family trees, they became patchy and isolated.

📺 The US president Donald Trump announced today…

👵🏼 I know that nasty man on the TV. He comes from Mont [a nearby village]. Don’t trust him.

🧔🏼 I trust him not an inch nonna.

The meaning of relationships also started to melt. “Sister”, “cousin” and “daughter” became interchangeable.

In the end, she would cry for “mum” when she wanted attention from my own mum, who was her only daughter and also her carer.

And you are making a game about that?

If I were a painter, I’d probably paint her. If I were a musician, I could write a song about her. These days I happen to be a game designer, so I’m making a game inspired by her.

I believe games can be more than just light-hearted entertainment. I’m particularly interested in cooperative boardgames, those you play face to face with other humans, to overcome challenges together.

Fading Memories

A few days after the funeral, I jotted down an idea for a game.

Like Memory but it’s coop. Once picked, cards cannot be flipped back. Instead they start fading.

As it often happens, the idea popped in my head while I was in bed, half asleep. I wasn’t design-thinking a game about grandma, dementia, or the fragility and malleability of memory. I didn’t even connect that idea to her. I was just going through my morning routine of downloading game ideas from the dream cloud before I get up and get busy.

💭 How do the cards fade? I don’t know yet. Just scribble this down.

Back in London, I found a picture from 2014.

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I played Memory a lot as a child. With my parents and other kids. I used to be very good at it. But I forgot about that time grandma and I played Memory together.

I went back to that note.

💭 Cards could fade if you cover them with something translucent like tracing paper. Let’s prototype it! Hang on, what’s the goal of this coop hack of Memory? Maybe matching all the cards before the memory loss becomes irreversible?

I grabbed some blank cards and filled them with common words representing peopleplaces and activities.

Then I cut up a few sheets of tracing paper and covered them with common feelings and times, but framed as questions.

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As I started playtesting this first prototype on my own, I realised each pair of cards you flip is an opportunity to tell a story.

What are memories in the end, if not stories we tell each other and whisper to ourselves?

This game will be about sharing personal stories and building collective memories.

Every time a player flips two memory cards, they will tell a story starting with “I remember…” and including the words on those two cards.

Then the next player will cover all the memory cards previously flipped with fade cards (tracing paper), before flipping two new memory cards and telling a story about them.

When you pick two matching memory cards, you still get to tell a story about the word on them. While doing that, you can recycle active fade cards by including them in your story. This means those recycled fade cards will be shuffled back into the fade cards deck, and may be used later to fade other memory cards.

You win the game when you have matched all the memory cards.

You lose when the fade cards deck runs out. In other words, when all the fade cards have been used to cover memory cards.

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