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Blasting the Enemy, One Cell at a Time
Eleanor Lang, 4 Oct 07
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We're not talking terrorism, but cancer: could a game provide a cure? Maybe not, but Hope Lab developed Re-Mission to help improve the quality of life for teenage and young adult cancer patients. The game seeks to empower young patients, both by the act of “zapping” cancer cells and by gaining more knowledge over the medical process. And Hope Lab has the clinical data to prove the game worked.

In randomized, controlled experiments with cancer patients aged 13-29, those who played Re-Mission were more likely to adhere to their medical regimen, as evidenced by higher blood levels of chemotherapy; they also showed higher rates of antibiotic utilization. Over time, the players also showed a higher quality of life, a greater knowledge of their disease and an increased ability to manage side effects.

Those are impressive results -- but they wouldn’t convince anyone in that age group to play the game if it wasn’t fun. A third-person shooter, Re-Mission stars the very cute and very highly armed nanobot Roxxi; at the player’s command, she travels through different portions of the body to search out and destroy malignant cells. It's a bit like the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage (would that make Roxxi the gaming generation's Raquel Welch?), or the Body Wars ride at the Epcot Wonders of Life pavilion; being a fan of The Mouse, I think that’s a good thing. But of course the game is a bit more targeted, as it were.

Re-Mission features 20 different missions in which you control Roxxi in her task. One mission is about a patient with a brain tumor, another about a patient with lymphoma; in each, the player must master medical terms and concepts specific to the particular type of cancer. Many missions also have relaxation goals, and most have a component to help the game-patient (and the real patient) through chemotherapy and/or pain management.

As if being fun and effective were not enough, there's also a Re-Mission online community where teenage and young adult cancer patients can talk to each other, simultaneously having a “normal” social experience with kids their own age and gaining support from one another.

Re-Mission is rated “T” for teen, mostly because the medical concepts necessary for the game would be a bit too complex for young children. Re-Mission is free to download for cancer patients, although a $20 donation is recommended. A doctor’s note or other medical verification is not required, so while anyone can play without pay, I wouldn’t recommend it; Hope Lab, a non-profit, does excellent and groundbreaking work in helping children manage chronic health concerns, so if you want to try it, please donate what you can.

Hope Lab’s latest project, Ruckus Nation, ( is an online idea competition looking for new and innovate ways to get kids moving. (It’s worth noting that games don’t necessarily create couch potatoes, and many high schools already offer gym credit to students who participate in Dance Dance Revolution clubs.)

Re-Mission and games like it are all part of a growing movement to use technology and the immersive quality of games to improve public health and health care policies. Games For Health is an organization that was founded by the Serious Games Initiative, a Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars project that applies cutting edge games and game technologies to a range of public and private policy, leadership, and management issues. Its goal is to foster a community of researchers and developers in an effort to improve healthcare worldwide.

As a society, we attach a stigma to being sick, a virtue to health, as if a person can control their genetic make-up or air-borne viruses or the more than 80 ways the human body can sabotage itself with auto-immune disorders. Illness is isolating. It’s scary. And statistically, people who start a medical regimen, whether for high blood pressure, depression or osteoporosis aren’t likely to take their pills regularly just one year later. If playing a game can increase medical compliance, that’s a big Wow!

Re-Mission is a perfect example of what games can do, and of what technology ought to do. It’s what games are truly capable of. I’d love to see more: games to help people cope with diabetes; eat better; keep aching joints in motion. I have no doubt that there is enough talent, intellect and knowledge to produce such games. Medical compliance is the key to controlling health problems, and a fun game is always a more effective teaching tool than a dull lecture.

Can a game cure cancer? Not exactly, but it can help those who have it.

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Very cool indeed!

Posted by: Romina on 5 Oct 07



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