Gaming to help beat cancer

All opinions my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

Plants versus Zombies 2: It’s About Time just came out.  My son spent a significant fraction of his weekend playing it on my iPad.  Okay, fine, I did too.  It’s a lot of fun, it challenges (but not too much) and it teaches you facts like, uh, like that Egyptian society in the past had a real fascination with pyramids.

So it’s not the most educational of games.

Which is why I was stoked to see the writeup of Re-Mission 2 in FierceBiotechIT.  This game takes elements of cancer treatment and places them in the context of a game that both educates patients undergoing cancer treatment as well as provides them a way to feel more in control of their situation.  Version 2 also builds on the impact of the first Re-Mission game, which showed success in improving adherence of patients to their treatment regimens.  Adherence is an important element of medical treatment and trying to make sure people take their medicines is an ongoing problem as we try to improve the efficiency of our healthcare systems.

In addition to behavioral metrics being changed by Re-Mission, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) also showed that playing the game activated brain areas associated with motivation–again, tying gameplay to elements of adherence.  Some brain region activations also correlated with subject described positive and improved attitudes towards chemotherapy after gameplay. Continue reading

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Girls, G.A.M.E.S., STEM and fun

There’s a lot of serious work going into understanding fun.  And for good reason.  If a game is fun it can make a developer millions of dollars.  And if it’s not…  The element of fun is also the underlying concept behind the rise of gamification approaches in business.  You know that a concept has entered the mainstream when it gets satirized in Dilbert.   Companies are experimenting with adding game-like elements such as competition, leaderboards, interactive simulations, and other similar innovations to the workplace.  Since humans enjoy games and games act to engage peoples’ attention, the theory is game-like features (or outright games) will help companies be more efficient, train more effectively and even drive innovation.

And the key element is fun.  Something about the alchemy between the participants and the system has to work in the right way to trigger the sensation of pleasure and interest.  Without it, the leaderboard withers, participation lags (or worse, gets mandated which is a death knell for fun), and the investment doesn’t pay off.  There’s a nice post over at techcrunch (HT @geoffclapp) dissecting the concept of “hafta” versus “wanna,” which I think is one of they important elements underlying fun.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of a recent initiative put forth by Northeastern University, in collaboration with the Institute for Systems Biology, the National Girls Collaborative Project, and others.  The very bold, very exciting goal is to build a large, public-private collaboration that will create games that interest girls in the science, technology, engineering and math fields (STEM), and that will increase the probability that girls continue into STEM careers.  That initiative, appropriately, is called Girls Advancing in Math, Engineering and Science (G.A.M.E.S.).

At this beginning stage, there are many clear challenges ahead and no one is denying that a lot of effort and coordination will have to take place for this to have a shot of working.  I attended their kickoff meeting and volunteered to be part of their researching efforts, because I’m interested in seeing how these games will be developed to try and make them appealing and fun for girls.  Already at the first meeting it was clear there will be some healthy debates about how to do that, whether girls really do get different kinds of fun from their games, and also how to prioritize fun versus more educational goals such as showing girls that research involves more failure than success and how that’s okay.

I expect it will be interesting. I expect to learn a lot about games and tools for measuring subjective information.  I hope others check it out and get involved.  It’ll be fun!  And if it isn’t we’ll want to figure out why, because that’s the kind of data this project really needs in order to be a success.

Coda:  For another take on the strange power/fascination of games, check out his New Yorker story about maybe the worst video game in the world–and how it’s led to over a million dollars in charity donations.  And yes, I realize this game is not in any way, shape or form, “fun.”