On a Saturday afternoon this month, a group of friends and I made some tea, poured some wine, curled up in my living room, and played a board game about dying. My friends didn’t leave my apartment with a codified will, but the game did push us to answer some pretty intimate and meditative prompts, such as: list our most precious assets and who we would pass them on to, draw up an outline of a eulogy should we have a chance to speak at our own funeral, explain what should happen to our bodies after we die, and decide who would serve as our medical proxy should we go into a coma. All of these sandwiched between a roll of the die and trading coins for wild cards.
For a few years at a university in the Netherlands, students could lie in a literal grave to think about their inevitable death. This board game, called Now and Then, is a bit less macabre than laying with your arms folded six feet under, but it’s designed to do the same thing.
Playing as yourself, you move a plastic gem piece around the board collecting points, cards, and answering timed questions about your end of life wishes and what’s meaningful to you that you’ll then share with the group. We found the gameplay to drag on a bit, and there were a lot of moving parts that made it a little tiresome and confusing, but the initial rush of gamification (collecting as many coins as you can, landing on spaces with power up cards, timed activities) was a clever gateway to the heart of the game—shooting the shit with your friends about your past, your present, and your inevitable expiration.
“I bet if the creators could nail a better format for the idea, it could take off since few games leave you thinking about your will,” Xavier Harding, a friend and reporter who will also one day die, said. “As a first draft of the game it was okay.”
Now and Then launched on Kickstarter this month, and was designed by After—a startup that develops products and experiences to help people figure out their legacy, and what they want to leave behind. “By the end of the game, you’ll have made all the decisions you needed to get your affairs in order,” the company wrote on its website.
Gregory Price Grieve, Head of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an expert on digital religion, Buddhism, ethics, and gaming, told me that Now and Then is a model example of how the concept of game play can serve as a conduit for more serious conversations.
“It is a powerful and skillful way to get people, particularly younger people, to engage with the ethical issues surrounding the end of one’s life,” Grieve said. “Speaking as a Buddhist, none of us are going to get out of here alive. And the sooner we can come to grips with that, the sooner we can fully live our lives.”
While playing the game, I learned which of my friends wanted to be cryogenically frozen, who wanted to donate their body to science, who wanted a keg at their funeral, and that if we were all raptured mid-game, we would leave behind student loan debt and a ton of cats. There was a lot of hedging before people shared their responses to the more earnest questions (“this might be dumb, but…”), like what accomplishments they wanted to be remembered by or who served as their greatest role models, but it was all far from dumb, and pretty wild that these weren’t things I had even thought to talk about with some of the closest people in my life. But I’m glad I did, because it brought us closer, and now at least five other people know who to call should someone ever need to decide whether to pull the plug on me or not.
Amy Pickard, creator and CEO of advanced planning company Good To Go!, told me that it’s important to have these conversations while death is still an abstraction; that you shouldn’t wait until you are married with kids or death is knocking at your door to think about your end-of-life plans, write them down, and sign it.
It’s not surprising, though, that talking about death is still stigmatized—researchers recently discovered that our brains protect us from the notion of our inevitable demise, filing it away as something that simply happens to other people. “The moment you have this ability to look into your own future, you realise that at some point you’re going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Yair Dor-Ziderman, a researcher at Bar Ilan University in Israel and lead of the study, told the Guardian. “That goes against the grain of our whole biology, which is helping us to stay alive.”
Pickard also added that these conversations don’t exclusively center around death. If I caught a severe stomach bug and was intubated, for example, who has my landlord information? Who knows how much I pay for rent and when it’s due? If I have a pet, who would be responsible of taking care of them? More importantly, who has spare keys to my place and knows where my advanced planning paperwork is?
“If a huge piano landed on me from an apartment building and I was in a coma and I wouldn’t want extraordinary measures if there was no quality of life afterward, who have you had those conversations with, and more importantly, have you written that down and signed it?” Pickard said.
Pickard noted that a lot of people don’t even think about all of the intricacies of planning for the unexpected, and that it’s not just about you. As my friends and I came to realize through our conversations during the game, we were mostly thinking about the burden our illness or death would have on our loved ones. Who would be able to emotionally handle deciding whether they should pull the plug on you? Would your girlfriend really, truly want to move your lovable but needy, fat cats into their apartment? Did you leave behind enough money to keep your head frozen in a cryogenics lab, or is your family going to have to make the awkward decision on whether to keep paying the bills or let you thaw out?
“It’s really to the benefit of others and those close to you to prevent that pain and prevent anger and infighting and confusion and the need for closure and those things,” Pickard said. She added that it’s natural, with social media, to curate our lives. “Why not curate your death at the same time? It’s just a natural extension.”