Combating Chemo Brain with Games

Tubi Hamid9 minute read

I am not a gamer. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I indulge my partner and their love of games much in the same way that I indulged my sister—a hobby and career that I can appreciate simply due to the joy games bring (brought) them. I have played games on occasion and I will admit to my crush on Leliana in Dragon Age but I never planned on them becoming a tool for me, just as they were for my sister. Then again I never planned on getting cancer during a global pandemic either. 

For months now, I have been undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, and I had brain surgery. All of these treatments came with side effects that left my mind clouded on my best days, barely able to do anything but stare at a wall on the more difficult days. My doctors recommended to me tasks like meditation and list making to help with my memory but neither of those things are tasks I’d ever do in my regular life, so I knew I would be unlikely to stick with them for any length of time that would be beneficial. 

Shortly before my sister died, she was writing a piece for Can I Play That about how she had been using Assassin’s Creed Odyssey to rehabilitate her brain from a stroke. She didn’t get very far in writing it but she had outlined the basics—playing in exploration mode to force herself to navigate using maps and landmarks, and utilizing stealth gameplay instead of her preferred all-out bloody assault style, forcing her to pre-plan her attacks and be aware of her surroundings. 

I started with Odyssey but soon found that what I needed was help with memory and logic puzzles, not help with my ability to plan and execute tasks. Courtney recommended two more Ubisoft games to me; Watch Dogs Legion and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. They told me that Legion would help with my ability to solve problems with logic and Valhalla would help me make headway with my memory.

Watch Dogs character driving a van, shown through a shattered window.

I had not played a game since Mass Effect some five years ago, so I was immediately captivated with the level of detail and diversity of the cast of characters available to me in Watch Dogs Legion. I wanted to find someone to play as that I could identify with but when I was unable to find a hijabi to recruit, I went with Farida Masood, a songwriter who creates fake coupons and has a clothing store loyalty discount card. I may not be a songwriter but I love coupons and my purse is a jumble of clothing loyalty discount cards. I may have to nab Farida’s hairstyle when mine grows back as well.

If you’ve experienced chemo brain or the brain fog that often accompanies a litany of chronic illnesses, you likely understand how important it is to be drawn to something visually for it to hold your attention. If you’re not familiar with the feeling, you need only imagine trying to read The Great Gatsby when all you want to do is go to bed and you understand the difficulty of paying attention.

A crashed up car beside a brick wall covered in graffiti.

The first mission I undertook in the open world of London was one to recruit a doctor who looked vaguely similar to a good friend who is also a doctor. I was told to steal a car that had stolen goods in it and destroy it. I was trying so hard to logic my way through the mission of destroying the car that I missed the helpful text telling me to accomplish this by driving the car into a river. Instead, I went about destroying the car in the way that seemed most obvious to me by ramming it back and forth between a brick wall and a wrought iron gate. After several minutes of me ramming the car and nothing but a lot of dents and broken glass happening, Courtney intervened and told me to read the tool tip. “Drive the car into the River Thames.”

“Why would I drive the car into a river when I can just blow it up?” I asked Courtney.

“Creative problem solving,” is all they said back.

My fleeting feeling of feeling a little dense helped to set the tone for the rest of the time I would spend in London doing crimes of resistance though. That one failure helped set my mind for anticipating creative thinking, which chemo has made me remarkably bad at. But now at least I knew what to expect.

Watch Dogs character standing in front of an Albion propaganda billboard.

My next mission involved hacking an electronic billboard to replace the Albion propaganda with my own resistance propaganda. The mission icon indicated that I needed to be on the roof to accomplish this. How in the world was I supposed to climb onto the roof when an Albion agent was right in front of it with his gun trained on a woman in restraints?

Watch Dogs character standing next to an Albion agent pointing his gun at a restrained woman.

Ahh yes, that creative thinking again. Courtney told me to be sure to recruit a construction worker to my crew early on because they would prove invaluable when needing to reach roofs. But I wanted to continue playing as Farida the fashionista with cool hair, not Kevin the bearded construction worker. I asked myself how on earth would I scale a building in real life? Logic told me you wouldn’t, you’d probably fall and die. But I carried on anyway, accepting that I may very well fall and die but at least I would die as Farida and not Kevin. 

Watch Dogs character standing in front of a chain link fence.

I searched around the building and eventually I found a pipe to climb, several fences to hop, and a gap to leap over and suddenly there I was, right behind the billboard on the roof, within hacking distance. And I figured it out all on my own. 

You may be wondering what this has to do with chemo brain, as it seems I’m simply describing my gameplay and not overcoming brain fog obstacles. The helpfulness of Legion is in the opportunities it presents me to really think and figure things out. I have cancer during a deadly pandemic. I am not out in the world faced with normal day to day situations that I have to think about. I am in my condo, where I have been, save for hospital stays and treatment, since March. Every opportunity to plan and execute, problem solve, in my daily life has been hindered by having to isolate. How do I get groceries while avoiding traffic on the street I loathe? I don’t. I open the app, order groceries, and tip well. How do I solve a strategic problem as I normally would at work? Well, I’ve been on medical leave for months, so I don’t do that either. I don’t know if one’s brain can atrophy like muscles that are not being used but being able to do these little tasks in Legion and figure them out using the bits of my brain that I would if life was normal feels like it’s saving me from losing a lot.

assassin's creed valhalla featured art

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is serving an entirely different need. I’ve listened to Courtney talk about how much they hate the replacement of the side quests with world events because instead of being able to track a quest and tick off steps along the way, you now must pay attention and complete these tasks without a single bit of help from the UI. Just as you would in real life. Now again, I am not exactly out there helping my friends with errands, doing favors for people, being given spoken directions as to what I must do. I am sitting in my condo, sick and feeling quite often that my brain is utterly useless to me because life has become so limited. These world events are exactly what I need to keep my brain engaged.

Just this morning Eivor helped a man with his failed Ledecestrescire Sauce. He told me that if I happened to have an eel, he’d like to add it to his pot of simmering sauce. I did not have an eel handy but there was a river nearby and it seemed a reasonable assumption that if the man wanted an eel, they’d be nearby, so I went to the river and found him an eel. After poor Eivor discovered that the eel did nothing to help the taste of the sauce, the man asked her to deposit it in his basement. Easy enough to figure out, but as with Legion, the simple task gave me an opportunity to use my brain in a way I’d not had to in months.

A group standing in front of a burning farm, cheering in Assassin's Creed Valhalla.

Earlier, I came upon a less obvious world event in which two brothers were fighting about their grain silo. Eivor was asked who deserved more coin from it; the laborer who grew it or the seller? (The laborer is the obvious answer.) But my answer did not help. They continued fighting, so I wandered the farm a bit and came upon the children and wives of the quarreling brothers. They all just wanted things to go back to how they were before the silo was built, when they rubbed the grain on their bellies and did other things with it I wouldn’t likely admit to a stranger. How on earth was I to solve this problem?

Being a religious scholar in my professional life, I thought immediately of Solomon in the Bible and his proposition of cutting in half the baby two women were claiming as their own. Could I split the silo? I tried but my efforts were futile. While hacking away at the silo with my axe, I spotted a cart of oil. What if I burn it and no one has the silo or grain? I wondered. That solution seemed a bit drastic but that would give me the outcome the children and wives hoped for. So I shot an arrow at the cart and watched as the families cheered on their burning silo and houses. Again, creative thinking saves the day and resolves the quest. 

The point of the exercises given to cancer patients struggling with chemo brain is to use our brains, think logically, plan things, remember things for more than a nanosecond. Memory tasks recommended by therapists revolve around using different methods of remembering, engaging different thought processes and getting out of habits you may be overly familiar with. What better way is there to do these exercises than in games that allow you to plan and carry out tasks that you would never ever do in your real life? These quests lend themselves perfectly to creative thinking and problem solving and force you to think and plan in ways far outside your comfort zone. And they’re fun on top of that.

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