KSU students, gaming industry rally to fulfill Make-A-Wish request

KENNESAW, Ga. | Aug 21, 2020

For more than 1,000 days, 14-year-old Ethan Daniel has fought childhood leukemia.

However, despite frequent hospital visits that prevent him from seeing his friends and family, he maintains a sense of normalcy through playing video games. Inspired by the positive effects of gaming, he set a goal of building a game that emulated his own life journey in the fight against cancer, hoping to ignite a fire in others who share a similar path. With the support of Make-A-Wish Georgia, Kennesaw State University and several Atlanta-based professional game developers, his wish was granted.

“To me, this is a way to grab some of the power back,” said Ethan, who finished his treatment in July. “When you’re in treatment, you don’t have much influence on your journey, but you can fight and beat cancer in a video game. I want other kids to be able to connect during their battle, and the gaming community is helping me do this.”

Make A Wish
Ethan Daniel (center), a Make-A-Wish participant who recently completed treatment for childhood cancer, addresses the audience at the 2020 Global Game Jam on KSU's Marietta campus in January.

In the spring, Ethan visited Kennesaw State as a special guest during Global Game Jam, an event held across multiple sites worldwide in which teams are given 48 hours to develop a video game. There, he was introduced to three teams of KSU students vying for the chance to build his game, Protocol. In individual meetings with the teams, Ethan discussed his overall vision for the game, culminating with the main antagonist, Dr. Leuka, a maniacal robot which represented his struggle with leukemia.

Over the course of Global Game Jam, the College of Computing and Software Engineering students worked around the clock to build their own interpretations of Ethan’s game, presenting their works at the conclusion of the event with Ethan serving as a guest judge. The winning team, composed of students Chris Lee, John Murwin, Ryan Pruitt, Sonya Medina, David Herrod, Darius Brown, Jake Poole and Wei Long Wu, was selected to complete the game with the mentorship of local companies Hi-Rez Studios, Skillshot Media and KontrolFreek, and the Georgia Game Developers Association.

“This was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Murwin said. “For those of us in the industry, we certainly like making games that we enjoy but a much bigger part of it is making something that brings joy to others. Even at a young age, Ethan had a natural ability to understand game design and it was incredibly inspiring to work with him.”

Make a Wish

The game was finished and published widely on itch.io, a distribution platform for independent game developers, coinciding with Ethan’s final treatment. Make-A-Wish Georgia celebrated the completion of Ethan’s wish with a neighborhood parade, which culminating in the ceremonial delivery of the finished game on a thumb drive.

“It was humbling to know that what I do can make a difference in the world,” said Pruitt, who was on-hand as Ethan raised the thumb drive above his head like Excalibur. “Knowing that we could put a smile on his face was unbelievable.”

Throughout the early stages of the process, the team said Ethan’s energy was infectious. While some members of the team poured over his hand-drawn pictures of characters for the game, others recorded catch phrases, grunts and groans to be used as sound effects in the finished product. When the coronavirus pandemic caused the students to practice social distancing, the team continued to communicate with one another by holding weekly meetings on Discord while chatting with Ethan via email. Far from the typical class project, Murwin said the game challenged each of the team members to improve their skills.

Make a Wish

“You can ask anyone on the team and they’ll tell you that they have learned more in these last few months than any other point in their academic career because this project was operating at such a high level,” he said. “So many of us have acquired skills that I don’t know we would have gained otherwise just from our work on this project.”

Kelli Daniels, Ethan’s mother who accompanied him during multiple visits with KSU students and faculty, said watching the game develop has been like seeing a puzzle come together.

“Each person we’ve met along the way is like a piece of the puzzle,” she said. “Ethan has been dreaming of this wish since he was diagnosed. Not just to play games that he made, but have a game where each child can put themselves into that game and takes back the control you lose when you have cancer. Now, all of the pieces have come together.”

– Travis Highfield

Photos by Rob Witzel and Submitted

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 43,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.