How Videogames Saved Me From a Brain Tumor (Not How You Expect)

How Videogames Saved Me From a Brain Tumor (Not How You Expect)

Though our struggles were collective and shared, their exact natures have been unique to us all throughout the pandemic. I’ve seen my entire life how videogames can positively impact us, and I’ve loved bringing that joy to companies via Games Done Legit. But I never dreamed that videogames might someday save not only my sanity, but perhaps my life, from a brain tumor.

Me with Josie, our two-year-old, a few days after I got the news. But hey, look at how beefy my arm looks from all the physical-videogame workouts I’m about to talk about!

An Unexpected Diagnosis

With a headline like that, you probably are guessing I sat on the couch for months playing videogames to get me through a recovery, maybe even depression. Nope (that’s my wife’s story, actually). It’s because of my passion for all things types of gaming that I was physically primed and mentally motived to deal with the trials ahead.

On an otherwise normal day around Thanksgiving 2020, I felt an alarming, terrifying feeling — something very wrong inside my head, and I nearly passed out. Once you have a spouse and child, you have all the more responsibility to maintain your health, so I went to the ER the next day.

Acoustic Neuroma MRIThis little f***er

I’ve never broken a bone or had anything more serious than the flu, but here I was at 38, getting a CT scan on the spot. Seeing anomalies, insurance approved an MRI immediately. The news that greeted us: not one but two brain tumors, “most likely” non-cancerous or life-threatening.

What else can you do but hope and cry when getting news like that? How could I be so young and in shape but have this happen, with a family to worry about to boot, I wondered?

Using Videogames to Stay Fit and Look Silly

Why was I bothering to get in shape, while running a business and building a family?

Since it was released in America in 2000, I’ve been competitively playing Dance Dance Revolution, a ridiculous videogame in which you physically step on cardinal-direction arrows in time to bizarre Japanese and licensed music (with titles like “In the Navy ‘99 XXL Disaster Mix” and “B4U Glorious Style”).

It was a pop-culture phenomenon all over the world, sparking the future success of Guitar Hero in the West.

Some played on plastic mats in the family room. Some took it a little more seriously.

Let the Beat Hit Em AAA Games Done Legit Ghaleon Chris HatalaNot exactly worthy of a LinkedIn profile pic. My first day getting perfect scores on any DDR songs, in 2004.

I’d usually look like I just survived a tsunami when I’d get home from the arcade after a night of playing, drenched in about 10 times the amount of sweat I’d expend at the gym.

I forged years-long friendships with other social misfits (it takes a certain personality to not care what you look like playing DDR at an arcade, food court, or Subway restaurant).

Shedding countless calories is just a happy by-product for us — the true goal is to test the limits of your physicality, endurance, heart and soul (as silly as that sounds, it’s true).

Me in the Semi-Finals of a big DDR tournament in 2009. Nowadays, these are comparatively easy songs! But DDR tournaments have always been more about seeing friends than winning matches.

When I became 36, I decided to see if I was too old to reach the one achievement that I could never reach in my heyday. So my wife and I started going to the gym 4-5 days a week, and I was eating lots of protein and bulking up, all to see if I could really do this goofy DDR thing.

And I actually did it!

I was never “too old” to do it in my 20s, as us “old timers” complained about, I just never really tried. But I didn’t see a reason to stop, so I kept pushing myself while I was still blessed with the ability to play and improve.

Having a baby (Josie) in 2019 put a slight crimp in our workout routine.

Clearly she’s going to be a hugger.

Nintendo’s Ring Fit Kept Me in Shape During Pandemic

Thankfully, during the pandemic, a Nintendo workout game called Ring Fit came out, which comes with a resistance band and leg monitor, and it features easy to intense workouts you can do in a 6’ x 6’ space.

It enabled me to keep myself in shape enough to continue to excel in DDR far beyond the limits of my younger days.

Ring FitRing Fit Adventure is like a workout video you control. You run through levels Mario-style and slaying monsters through the power and proper form of your exercises. And it’s no Wii Fit — it will push you as far as you want to go.

But, as I mentioned, at the end of 2020, I was not so much worried about the time frame of my DDR career as I was about whether my time with the little one and my lady were suddenly very limited.

Wanted: Big Tumor With Annoying Name

The main tumor, called an acoustic neuroma, is a non-cancerous bundle of nerves that accumulates on and sticks to your balance and facial nerve. It can really mess with your basic walking, and generally you’re going to lose hearing in your ear on that side of your face, whether you remove it or not.

My tumor was the size of a golf ball (WTF!) and taking up shockingly considerable real estate in my head when we saw it on the MRI.

It was also a “Mass Effect” one, meaning it was actively pushing on my brain. They were “shocked” (their words) that I seemingly displayed no effects of this, other than a mild ringing in that ear and my aforementioned ill feeling that brought me to the ER.

Sadly unrelated to this Mass Effect, a revolutionary, emotional, choose-your-own-adventure space-epic RPG that got my wife through her big surgery years before.

The smaller one was at the top of my spinal column — a something “shwannoma”, not to be confused with a schwarma — and encroaching on (but not blocking) my spinal-fluid drainage.

DDR is actually a primary source of motivation for me: It gives me a weird self-confidence that (as with other videogames I’ve exceled in) I’ve learned to apply to the non-gaming areas of my life.

Not teaching her DDR music on the piano — yet — but we’ll get there if she decides she likes any.

They said I could “probably” eventually play DDR again

…Though everybody recovers differently, especially from a brain procedure. (I talked to a guy with the same thing who has recurring headaches but was jogging a few days after surgery; another friend’s brother had a different brain tumor, and he’s in a home now, unable to take care of himself.)

I had so many doubts, fears, and questions, but only through the passage of time could I get any answers. We opted for immediate surgery, as a pandemic at least can leave you with a lot of time to do nothing.

Prepping for surgery, when I could still raise both eyebrows and also not look like I’m displaying a perpetual Han-Solo smirk.

Anyone who knows anything about Cleveland probably knows that A: Our sports teams have reputations for losing (although that’s changing!), and B: Our health care is world-class. Thankfully, CLE did not let me down (like the Browns did most of my adult life).

Josie, I solemnly swear: You will grow up in a world where the Browns are good.

Despite an excruciatingly long 14-hour surgery (which my wife and had had to endure away from the hospital because of COVID protocols), my skillful team of doctors got the entire bugger out (it was quite sticky, causing extra delay).

Right side of my face = no workie for an unknown number of months, but our doctors here know how to make sure it isn’t severed or receive permanent damage. They came through for me!

I woke up feeling weird, for sure, but relieved at the good news, even in  my drugged-out state.

Not an audition for a punk band, nor is it a Shadowrun cosplay. Fun fact: The marker on my ear was to make sure they didn’t drill the wrong side, lol, which makes you wonder how many times that’s actually happened.

I mainly remember being surprised I wasn’t in any pain, and when they first got me out of bed to walk, I was like, I think I can’t walk properly right now because of the Percocet, not because of my head.

Brain MRI after surgery for acoustic neuromaThey got it! And the other tumor is very small and will probably just need monitoring for the rest of my life.

Six weeks later, when I was cleared to carry stuff heavier than 10 lbs. (such as our little Josie!), I went back out to the DDR machine. To my complete shock, I hadn’t missed a beat.

Although I did have to wear this thing, but at least it let me look like one of my favorite characters in fiction for awhile, the Sean Connery-look-alike “Big Boss” from Metal Gear.

Anxiety: Why Surgery Was the Easy Part

What the doctors don’t really tell you though, is that the mental journey to recovery can be much, much harder than the physical one.

I had many freak-outs and even another trip to the ER, as oftentimes out of nowhere, my head would feel very wrong, similar to that night that started this whole thing.

Despite being assured that the operation was a total success and a six-months-out MRI should confirm that (and it did), it’s hard to believe when it’s your body feeling wrong.

I’m a happy guy, but through recovery you just don’t always feel like smiling.

To my surprise, my doctors didn’t prescribe drugs, but rather counseling.

Apparently, I now knew first-hand what a panic attack really was, as I was most likely having one every time my head felt screwy. (It did need time to heal — I had friggin’ brain surgery, after all — as my brain slowly filled in the golf-ball-sized hole the tumor had occupied.)

I was lucky to find a counselor I was comfortable with right off the bat. She still helps me with talk and tools to cope with the physical sensations I continually have, as well as with my fear that something similar could happen to me again.

The very definition of a forced smile, haha.

My instinct is now easily catastrophize every “off” thing I feel. My, uh, plumbing was really backed up recently, and after it remained for days I was afraid I might have colon cancer and need a colonoscopy (turns out I was eating WAY too much dairy and protein).

DDR and Ring Fit were/are a huge part of my recovery; I just wasn’t ready to give up. I don’t know why. Can we truly understand why something drives us? It’s just part of what makes you “you”.

I wanted to “retire” on my own terms with DDR, not resign myself to being too old or too hobbled. And having an actual task with concrete goals in an arena I’m not afraid of failure (which videogames provide by their very nature) keeps my energy positive.

By never limiting your expectations, just trying, and taking care of yourself physically and mentally, the self-help books are right: You really can achieve what you want.

DDR Lach HeavyDon’t worry about what the hell this means. Just know that it’s really tough to do and we’re happy!

Reaching my Level Cap

Recently, at age 39 and eight months after brain surgery, I was able to reach a DDR pinnacle, clearing one of 7 songs in the highest level of difficulty, which only several hundred people in the world have achieved, out of the millions of people who’ve played this game.

I’m universally lucky and grateful that a friend was A: Also playing this day, B: In the middle of a break, C: Aware of how important this was to me, and D: So kind as to shoot video in case I actually did it.

The green meter at the top is your life bar — it looks like I might’ve been ONE step from failing. If I had missed ONE additional step out of the 769 total, I wouldn’t have passed. I honestly still can’t believe I could even do this, let alone at my age and after the year it’s been for me.

It’s funny: Sometimes our brain isn’t that helpful, even when it isn’t growing tumors.

Our brain tries to shield us from risks, from failures, from heartbreak.

But as impossible as it sounded in my head to think I could ever pass a “19”, every time I actually played this song, my heart calmly told me, “Eh, I think I can do it. It’s not that hard.”

I spent years assuming “19s” were forever impossible for me. Once I felt it was time that I bothered to seriously try, it took me just two months to pass this.  And I only played it once during my weekly sessions, so all in all it took me five or six attempts to pass it!

There’s a lesson in there somewhere, isn’t there?

Would my wife rather that I was focused on making a million dollars a year or something? Yeah, probably.

But I think she’s also as grateful to have me around and healthy (as I am her). And while she doesn’t understand DDR, she understands how important it is to me.

This represents so much more to me than you can ever know. I might frame it!

Now, my daughter loves to see “daddy dancing” in the above video of me overcoming this nearly insurmountable objective. (She, oddly, asks to watch it over and over sometimes and makes me “dance” in place for real until I’m too tired to continue.)

I can’t say I mind.

It serves as a reminder to believe in my abilities as a business owner, an entertainer, a son, a husband, and a human being given time and agency in this universe. And even if people don’t understand your goals or vision, if you’re that passionate, people can’t help but notice your passion.

If videogames can help me remain healthy, and if we can use the things that inspire us to teach our kids to learn, try, and believe in themselves — whether it’s through our career, our weirdo hobbies, or whatever — I hope I can feel like I did my job for her, too.

Josie loves Sonic the Hedgehog shows and stuffed toys, and I can’t wait till when we can play together she can do more than makes Tails run away from Sonic (the yellow fox’s rear is visible on the left).

Once Again, I’m Able to ‘Make It Fun’ for Corporate Events

What does this have to do with my business, Games Done Legit?

Well, that’s up to you, but if I could fight back from brain-tumor surgery so I could play arcade dancing games, this makes it clear how far I go for every corporate entertainment, team-building, holiday-party, and training event that we book.

And how thankful I am for the opportunity to entertain you through doing what I truly love, now that I’m fully recovered and open for business.

People having fun!

Everyone, and every group, is different, but in the end, people want to enjoy time with those around them.

And, of note to HR professionals, C-level execs, and trainers, when employees are having fun, they’re going to listen to what you have to say.

Our entertainment area at Best of Cleveland — who doesn’t want to chill + Mario Kart?

We worked with ESPN Cleveland, the Cleveland Browns, and a VR Football game developer to create an entertainment tent for 2019 home games. As I hoped, both fans and clients were overjoyed with the result!

Games Done Legit has served small teams to Fortune 500 companies these past 7 years, and I look forward to seeing more smiles as we open up for business once again!

Progressive Insurance’s bi-annual D&I conference, where we had Ferrari Racing, ’80s and ’90s videogames like Street Fighter II and Mario Kart 64, as well as four-player Pac-Man and VR both on giant screens at the Cleveland Convention Center.

Thanks very much for reading my story of my brain tumor survival!

I know your time is valuable and that this is “too long” for a business-focused blog post, but I can think of no better way to tell it, and I don’t really like doing things just because it’s “the right business way”.

Disrupt HR Live+Interactive Presentation, presented by me, Chris Hatala.

Like, I see a lot of entertainment businesses that use stock imagery on their website or marketing materials.

Every photo and video I showcase is from actual happy people at Games Done Legit events. No one’s being paid to smile; they were all freely given.

Cleveland Corporate Challenge Games Done Legit Videogame Gauntlet LubrizolTeam Lubrizol winning our Cleveland Corporate Challenge Videogame Gauntlet, with our Duck Hunt “8-bit Photo Buddy”.

So I’m inviting you to have a great day and appreciate what and who you have. 🙂

Push the button below and just fill out the contact form if you want to share stories or tell me more about your organization and needs.

And no matter what you do or who you are, remember to please:

Make It Fun button for Games Done Legit entertainment

By Chris Hatala, founder, owner, event director, and content creator of GDL Entertainment, Ltd. (dba Games Done Legit).

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