Video Games Aim to Hook Children on Better Health

Rashida Wilkins, 16, holds a copy of the video game Re-Mission, which she played last year while undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. Scientists are studying whether youths who play the game stick to treatment regimes.
Rashida Wilkins, 16, holds a copy of the video game Re-Mission, which she played last year while undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. Scientists are studying whether youths who play the game stick to treatment regimes. (By Dan Reeves -- The Washington Post)

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By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 21, 2006

Video games that aim to improve children's health are still in their infancy, but already a few are showing demonstrable results.

What began as, and remains, a niche concept in the $7 billion-a-year video game industry is now getting some science behind it. And the new health-themed games are tested not only for whether kids will play them but also for whether playing them changes their behavior in a healthful way.

For years, researchers have thought that a medium that sometimes turns kids into video zombies could be mobilized to help young people fighting cancer, diabetes, obesity and other health problems. But the commercial prospects of such games -- and their ability to draw more financial backing -- depended on scientifically demonstrating their value.

"When we start developing games with measurable health impacts in mind, that's when we can really start advancing public health through games," said Erin Edgerton, a program analyst with the National Center for Health Marketing, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One game that has already begun to produce measurable results is Re-Mission by HopeLab, a Palo Alto, Calif., nonprofit that aims to help young cancer patients.

The game features a microscopic "nanobot" named Roxxi, a shapely brunette who, at the player's direction, travels through the body blasting away at cancer cells and bacteria with a sidearm loaded with chemotherapy drugs and antibiotics. The game's 20 levels simulate seven types of cancer.

The game takes aim not at the disease but at the obstinacy of adolescence: Studies show that teenagers are more likely than young children or adults to stray from their treatment regimens. In playing the game, young people learn, for instance, that failing to eradicate every cancer cell can lead to a recurrence -- bad for their score and their health.

In a scientific trial of 375 cancer patients age 13 to 29 last year, those who played Re-Mission adhered more closely to antibiotic treatments and maintained higher levels of chemotherapy drugs in their blood. They also understood cancer better and were more confident of their ability to fight it.

"It's stealth learning," said Steve W. Cole, vice president for research at HopeLab. "The things that happen inside the game don't stay in the game; they get in your head, and they change the way you approach the world. . . . Cancer is not death knocking on your door, but basically an opponent whose butt you are going to kick."

Rashida Wilkins, 16, who took part in the study, began playing the game last year while undergoing treatment for a brain tumor at Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk. Now in remission, she still plays every day.

"It showed me how the chemo goes through my body and kills the cancer cells . . . and it was fun to play," she said. "I even let my little brother play it with me. He liked it. He said he learned about what I was going through."

HopeLab has distributed 40,000 copies of the game since April. It is free for cancer patients; HopeLab asks others for a $20 donation.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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