Ben Duskin: How a Make-A-Wish Video Game led to Meeting the Dalai Lama

“We had this whole-school assembly and they played that Charlie Brown cartoon where a kid gets cancer, and then they brought me up in front of the school and told people not to treat me any differently…”


Bens GameIn the year 2000 at age four, Ben Duskin was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. When he was eight, Make-A-Wish Foundation connected Ben with LucasArts Games where designer Eric Johnston helped make Ben’s wish come true: A game that would help other kids fighting cancer. The game, which became known simply as Ben’s Game, went on to be downloaded more than 300,000 times and Ben became an inspiration for kids around the world. Ben just graduated from college with a degree in biology and is applying this fall for Masters programs in biotechnology, hoping to continue helping kids with cancer. Here Digging Deep talks with Ben about his experience and what he’s learned about himself and about life along the way. We know you were young, but is there anything you remember about your diagnosis?

Ben: I remember I was in this hotel and got these leg cramps. I was rushed to UCSF Hospital where doctors found I had cancer. I went and started chemo. I made the game a few years into it. After I went into remission after. Then we moved to Houston, where I relapsed and had to receive a bone-marrow transplant. I was really lucky – MD Anderson and Texas Children’s Hospital were right there.

Ben Duskin`s game How did you decide to make a game?

Ben: When Make-A-Wish got in touch, I don’t remember having much direction. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I liked videogames and so I was like “let’s make a game!” They didn’t really know what to do with it – they didn’t know how to make a game – but they put out an ad and the guys from LucasArts linked me up with Eric. I started meeting with him once, twice a week for seven or eight months to make this little game. I had so much fun creating it! Going over to the LucasArts facility, playing games, seeing the new stuff before it was out. It sounds like that was the start of quite a journey…

Ben: After the release party, the game started getting more publicity and I started getting calls from the Today Show, CNN, G4, a whole bunch of places. Even now, I remember in my sophomore year in high school a friend went on vacation in Canada and saw me in a throwback news article on CNN. Or, I remember in middle school and we had a People Magazine in Spanish and it was the same article – though they spelled my name wrong. How did you deal with all the attention?

Ben: I didn’t want to talk about cancer for a while. I kind of shied away from it. I didn’t want people knowing about it – I didn’t like to stand out. I remember in elementary school, I had just got cancer and we’d be there in circle time and I’d be pulling out clots of hair. We had this whole-school assembly and they played that Charlie Brown cartoon where a kid gets cancer, and then they brought me up in front of the school and told people not to treat me any differently, like, “Here’s Ben, he has cancer, don’t push him, don’t play too hard with him… but, you know, don’t treat him any differently.” That sounds rough…

Ben: Yeah, then in high school, like, when my homie and I would go up to girls, he’d be like, “This is my friend Ben, he had cancer and he made a game.” Then I knew the girl was going to give me the sick puppy face and it was all over. But then after a while you realize it’s a part of you and you have to accept it and move on – better to use it to your advantage than let it torment you. When you were 11, you met the Dalai Lama to receive an award called the Unsung Heroes of Compassion. What was that like?

Ben: I got to meet a whole bunch of cool people – Warren Miller, the guy who makes ski videos, a family that started orphanage in Nicaragua, a few Tibetan monks. It was a crazy experience. How did it feel to be with these people? Did you feel out of place?

Ben: I do think these people are normal to a certain extent, you know? What they’re doing is what they should be doing, contributing to the world as they see fit. Everybody has the potential to change the world, make it for the better. Cancer pointed me in that direction. Like, I could sell sneakers, or I could go into business and make six-figures and be happy. But it’s not what I want to do. Because of that experience, it really helped point me in a direction. This might be a tough question, but after all you’ve been through – the success and the fame, but also your cancer – would you do it all again?

Ben: I don’t know… No. I wouldn’t. I think that’s the easy answer, though. I mean, you could grow up without cancer and just be a regular kid. Between the ages of five and nine, when you really start to develop a knack for something, I spent that time in the hospital. Maybe it would’ve been in sports or maybe I would’ve been a dancer – who knows? But then I look on this experience – it was so positive, so amazing to transform that negative into such a positive, not just for me but for other people as well, just to see them enjoy the game and get joy out of it. I don’t know… Now that you’ve been cancer-free for more than a decade, do you feel like it’s all behind you now?

Ben: Yeah, it’s all done now. But I think a piece of my illness and my treatment will always be with me. I still don’t like going to the doctor’s office! But it makes me more cognizant of what’s going on with me and around me. It’s just kind of innate now. I’m more in tune with my body and with myself in the world.