Video games lend helping hand to doctors looking to slay big, bad cancer dragons

Published: Monday, Sept. 26 2011 4:35 p.m. MDT

University of Utah grad students created a video game for Primary Children's Medical Center patients in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Cancer can be a tough opponent, but giving kids the power to beat it is the focus of a new video game developed by students and faculty at the University of Utah.

"If they can see themselves as super heroes fighting off an illness to achieve a state of health, that's exactly the kind of thing that we want them to experience," said Roger Altizer, adjunct professor at the U. and director of game design and production.

The patient empowerment game is currently only a prototype, but it has already proven effective at giving kids with cancer something to look forward to.

In addition to a stronger mental state, patients might also increase their physical strength with various movements required throughout the game.

Vance B. Strong, the main character in the game, goes on vacation and ends up charged with saving the entire town of Sandy Shore. He is up against an army of robotic crabs on the beach, a Ferris wheel full of people who need saving and has to build a defensive wall around the town to protect everyone, among other exciting tasks.

Each time the hero advances, his persona is amplified. Creators within the U.'s Engineering Arts and Entertainment program have used bright colors and loud, vibrant graphics to depict a stronger character every time a task is completed, and all the while, the "enemy" becomes weak and continues to diminish.

"When Vance is building the wall to save the town, it's a metaphor for building up your immunity to fight off disease," Altizer said. "While the game has a lot of fun concepts in it, everything in the game is related to the patient's experience."

The game, which has yet to be officially named and is played on Sony's PlayStation3, lacks any type of violence, as per doctor's orders, and promotes physical activity, which patients confined to a hospital room don't often get.

"Many of them are hospitalized for days at a time, weeks and some even for a few months, in a small room and on immune-compromised service, with very limited physical activity and a lot of them don't feel good enough for physical activity," said Dr. Carol S. Bruggers, a professor of pediatric hematology and oncology at the U. She said the game helps patients deal with the "psychology of life."

"There's a lot of literature out there about the power of play, the role of play, and not just that it is fun, but in terms of dealing with anxieties and dealing with life's challenges, it is not just a diversion, but an inversion that helps you overcome and understand some of the challenges that you are faced with and assimilate those in a relatively successful manner," Bruggers said.

Doctors wanted to keep violence and death out of the game to keep it uplifting for patients and their families, especially those dealing with potentially life-threatening illnesses. The motion requirements can be handled by just about anyone, Bruggers said, "whether you're standing up, sitting or lying down."

She's anxious to see the new game in a practical setting, with actual patients as beneficiaries, not only in the cancer ward at the hospital, but in other circumstances as well and for all kinds of sicknesses.

Researchers have used video games in the rehabilitation setting before, to promote activity and range of motion, but using it to inspire hope in patients is a new idea, Bruggers said.

It all comes down to the idea that a patient feels they can change the seemingly impossible.

"Patients who are more empowered are presumably more likely to be willing to fight their disease and maintain treatment for a longer period of time," she said, adding that when treating cancer patients, hope is a major factor.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com Twitter: wendyleonards

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