Cancer in children and young adults may be no laughing matter, but a California-based nonprofit is finding that video games about cancer are having a significant impact in helping them deal with their disease.
HopeLab, based in Redwood City, Calif., launched the Re-Mission game in 2005 with the goal of helping children and young adults understand their cancer and improve treatment adherence. The game, in which a user pilots a "Nano-Bot" and uses weapons like chemotherapy and radiation to kill cancer cells (think "Space Invaders" taking place inside the body), was well-received in a field in which "fun" and "cancer" are rarely found in the same sentence.
Now the company has unveiled Re-Mission 2, a series of six games designed to make the experience all the more meaningful for those with cancer.
"For kids in particular, games are a great way of communicating," said Richard Tate, HopeLab's vice president of communications and marketing, who discussed Re-Mission 2 during a session of the Games for Health Conference this week in Boston. "Kids see this as a something they could use to fight their disease, as opposed to something that is just happening to them."
Tate noted that children with cancer have far worse outcomes than adults, and one of the primary causes is compliance with treatment. They're not as motivated to take the drugs they need to take or undergo radiation therapy – an issue that not only affects them physically, but psychologically.
Tate said HopeLab launched a study in 2008 of Re-Mission, pulling in 275 teens and young adults from 34 medical centers in the United States, Canada and Australia to test the efficacy of the game. The study, he said, proved not only that children used the game to increase their knowledge of the disease, but that "it got them to take their treatments more consistently."
Austin Harley, one of HopeLab's game designers, said children with cancer were consulted often in designing the new games. They were asked to describe what cancer looks like to them, and what they'd like to do to it. The answers were often visceral, he said, but they helped designers shape each game so that it appeals to children.
Of particular importance, Harley, said, is the fact that each game has to be fun to play. For that reason, he said, each game was designed along the lines of another popular video game, like "Angry Birds" or "Cat God."
"If it's not fun, they simply won't play it," he said.
Likewise, he said, kids won't play a game just to learn more about cancer. Tate pointed out that simply knowing more about cancer didn't improve the outcomes in the study, and that those outcomes had to be tied to a shift in attitude.
"It's not about knowing everything," Harley said. "It's about feeling empowerment."
The games – Nanobot's Revenge, Stem Cell Defender, Nano Dropbot, Leukemia, Feeding Frenzy and Special Ops – are available free online at www.re-mission2.org.
Tate pointed out that when HopeLab introduced the first Re-Mission game in 2004-2005, it was met with skepticism. Since then, he added, the organization is backed by the likes of the Livestrong Foundation, Vivendi, Cigna, the Entertainment Software Association, Genentech and the Annenberg Foundation.