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The Healing Power of Video Games

August 5, 2008

By Elizabeth Simpson, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Aug. 5–Rashida Wilkins was undergoing chemo-therapy for a brain tumor in 2005 when she was asked to participate in an experimental treatment.

Not radiation, or a drug that would make the teen feel nauseated, thank goodness.

Rather, a video game.

Wilkins, now 18, was only too happy to comply.

For weeks, she played the game in which a microscopic “nanobot” named Roxxi travels through the bodies of characters with cancer, blasting away cancer cells and bacteria with a firearm of chemotherapy and antibiotics.

The Norfolk teenager was one of 375 teens and young adults across the country who played the game for a study being released today in the professional journal Pediatrics.

The study showed that the video game, called Re-Mission, helped educate the 13- to 29-year-olds about cancer, which led to better compliance with their medications and more confidence in fighting the disease.

Re-Mission is just one example of a burgeoning

concept: harnessing the power of video games, long viewed as the enemy of children’s well-being, as a motivator for good health behavior.

At Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, video games are used in ways that go far beyond entertaining children in the waiting room of the Norfolk facility.

Children with asthma use a video game to blow down the houses of The Three Little Pigs and test their breathing capacity at the same time. Physical therapists there use Nintendo’s “Wii Sports” video game to help children regain strength in their arms.

Karen McKinley, a CHKD social worker, said the Re-Mission video helps teens with cancer understand what’s going on inside their bodies, and the importance of sticking with their chemotherapy and antibiotic regimes.

The Re-Mission video was developed for young cancer patients by a nonprofit organization in California called HopeLab. The children and young adults who tested the video came from 34 different hospitals in the United States, Canada and Australia in 2004 and 2005.

Twenty-three teens from CHKD were given a computer and the video game to take home and play for several months.

“They felt good to be part of something that was going to help kids all over the country,” McKinley said.

Some of the kids found it too hard and quit, but 20 played the game for the entire study.

Wilkins, who is now in remission, said she remembers how much fun she had playing the game, even though it’s been several years. The characters taught her about cancer and why it was important to keep taking her medications to combat every last cancerous cell.

At first she wanted to keep the game to herself and not include her brother, who is three years younger.

“Then I thought it might help him understand why I come home sick, so I let him play.”

Steve Cole, vice president of research at HopeLab, said the fact that the video was put to the test in a randomized, controlled study gives scientific credence to the concept.

Already, health companies and foundations are paying more attention and providing funding for these efforts. Cole believes the power of video games can be used to help children fight obesity, diabetes, sickle cell anemia and a whole array of other diseases.

He leaves the science of biology to doctors and researchers but believes videos can play an important role in an area that can be tricky to control: patient compliance.

“As a tool for behavior change, they’re highly effective,” Cole said.

McKinley said she’s probably given out 100 copies of Re-Mission since the study ended. Cancer patients can get a copy for free from the company, but she has found it’s best to put it right in their hands after diagnosis.

The game is specific to the type of cancer a player has, and has 20 different levels of play.

The challenge with video games, though, is keeping it fresh.

Today’s superhero, after all, can be tomorrow’s has-been.

But Wilkins said she still remembers some of the characters on the video and relates them to her own battle against cancer.

“It makes me feel good the study’s coming out,” she said. “And I’m excited that other patients are getting to play the game.”

Elizabeth Simpson, (757) 446-2635, elizabeth.simpson@pilotonline.com

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

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