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Friday, May 13, 2022

The Peril and Privilege of Exploration: A Review of Subnautica

by Matt Tyler (@PalliDad)

In the survival game Subnautica, you play the role of a space voyager who has crash landed on an aquatic alien planet. You must find a way to escape while navigating the planet’s beautiful but dangerous flora and fauna. Exploration makes the core of Subnautica, and because I am a palliative care doctor, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to serious illness conversations. Whether exploring shipwrecks and underwater caverns or the emotions and stories of patients, both require curiosity, methodical skill development, and respect for boundaries.

Any explorer must first and foremost be curious, even in the face of danger. You won’t make progress in Subnautica if you don’t get close to some scary sea monsters. The same is true for serious illness conversations, maintaining curiosity is essential even when encountering a strong emotion like anger. Rather than presuming an angry patient misunderstands the situation, a curious mind wonders about the origins of that anger and the suffering that may be beneath the surface. The empathy that flows from this curiosity can lead to new levels of understanding.

And yet, curiosity alone can only take you so far. At the beginning of Subnautica, your basic equipment will only let you explore a short distance below sea level. To discover the planet’s deepest secrets, you must gradually accumulate the resources necessary to upgrade your diving gear. Likewise, we need more than curiosity to explore the complexities of a patient’s physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and cultural needs in the face of serious illness. It takes time to develop the skillset needed to facilitate these conversations, ideally with observation and feedback from experts.

Even with the most advanced exploration equipment, there are depths in Subnautica that remain out of reach. There are no physical barriers to show that you’ve reached the world’s edge - that understanding only comes with your fully realized abilities. Similarly, seasoned communicators appreciate that although there are parts of a patient’s story that can be explored with advanced skills, there are always boundaries that must be respected. Though it requires a certain level of expertise to see these invisible walls, noticing their presence is vital for creating a patient-centered care plan.

Ultimately, survival in Subnautica depends not on rebuilding the world to suit your specific needs, but on learning how to work with the world on which you’ve crash landed. Building a relationship with our patients requires the same approach. If we are willing to dive into our patient’s world to understand and support what matters most to them, who knows what beauty can be discovered?

Subnautica is available to play on PC (Steam), macOS, PlayStation 5, Xbox and Nintendo Switch systems.

This post has a companion piece video hosted by Digital Doc Games (embedded below). Check out the Digital Doc Games YouTube channel hosted by Dr. Amiad Fredman for videos on how video games have a huge power to have a positive impact on people's lives.

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Matt Tyler is a palliative care doctor in Chicago. If he's not watching Cocomelon with his daughters, he is probably playing video games.

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