Video Games for Health: A New Approach to Educating and Treating Pediatric Cancer Patients

Published: Thursday, Jan 01, 1970
Video games have become a way of life for many children and adolescents, made possible by the advent of game consoles (eg, Xbox, Playstation), computers, and the Internet. Although some people frown upon the amount of time some kids spend playing these games and decry their lack of educational value, the gaming industry has begun to evolve beyond solely providing entertainment and turned its attention toward designing games that address “a wide range of public and private policy, leadership, and management issues”. As part of this effort, designers are working with physicians and researchers to develop games that combine entertainment value with education in a revolutionary approach to disease management that could be particularly effective in children and adolescents. Video games may not be an instant cure, but research has demonstrated that people have the ability to learn more when engaging in an interactive game, a phenomenon that game designers hope to leverage to help improve outcomes in a variety of diseases, including cancer.

Currently, games are being developed in three categories: 1) Simulated- and virtual-reality, which can be used to alleviate anxiety and distract from pain; 2) “Exergames,” which incorporate exercise into playing; and 3) Learning games, which educate children about various health conditions. Terry Spearman, team leader for Child Life Services at the Children’s National Medical Center, says “distraction…is a well-documented technique for helping children manage anxiety and fear in the hospital,” and “video games ‘sound like another, higher-level form of distraction.’”

Numerous trials have been conducted to determine how effectively video games help patients cope with pain. According to an editorial published in the July 16, 2005 issue of the British Medical Journal, “these studies reported that distracted patients had less nausea and lower systolic blood pressure than controls (who were simply asked to rest) after treatment and needed fewer analgesics”.

Games for Health Project

The Serious Games Initiative—founded by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars based in Washington, DC—established the Games for Health Project to “help foster and support a community of researchers, developers, and users of applications that use game, game technologies, and game development talent to create entire[ly] new ways of improving the management, quality, and provision of healthcare worldwide.” Games for Health is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and seeks to improve the health of patients through the application of video gaming and interactive multimedia technologies. The Project does this by focusing on four questions: 

  1. Can games improve the provision, and quality, of healthcare? 
  2. What existing and emerging game technologies (such as multi-user, virtual environments) might be particularly useful when applied to healthcare issues? 
  3. How can we expand the application of computer-based game technologies to face key challenges in the healthcare sector? 
  4. How do we identify and proactively deal with any social, ethical, and/or legal issues that might arise through the application of game-based tools to healthcare issues?
On September 28-29, 2006, the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore hosted the third annual Games for Health conference, which brought more than 250 researchers, medical professionals, game developers, and consultants together in order “to explore how video games and game developers are driving new strategies in health care” through case studies, a demonstration expo, research, lectures, panels, and discussions about a variety of topics and projects. “Game developers have the skills to create programs that will help patients learn about disease and disease management,” said Dr. Bruce Jarrell, vice dean for academic aff airs, University of Maryland School of Medicine. “There is real promise in the video game industry to bring needed health care information to patients in a familiar and exciting format.”

Games for Pediatric Cancer Patients

The American Cancer Society estimated for 2006 that 9,500 new patients age 0-14 years would be diagnosed with cancer. These patients would then most likely undergo aggressive treatments ranging from surgery to chemotherapy to radiology, most likely accompanied by side effects (eg, nausea, rashes, hair loss) and pain that significantly diminish their quality of life. This is where video games can help, both as a distraction from the pain and as educational tools. Game designers have created several games, available in a variety of formats to meet the special needs of pediatric cancer patients.


View Conference Coverage
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Community Practice Connections™: CDK4/6 Inhibitors With the Experts: The Role of Emerging Agents for the Management of Metastatic Breast CancerMay 30, 20182.0
Medical Crossfire®: Clinical Updates on PARP Inhibition and its Evolving Use in the Treatment of CancersMay 30, 20181.5
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