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Going mobile: Games, virtual pets and healthcare

Posted by Timothy Loew  March 3, 2014 12:21 PM

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By Alexander Ryu, CEO and co-founder, LifeGuard Games

Meet Carlos. Carlos is 8 years old, lives in Brookline and, like of all his friends, loves mobile games. Carlos also has asthma.

Just last week, Carlos had an asthma attack after school and had to go to the hospital by ambulance. A few days later, his family got another hospital bill, this time for $2,000. This has his mother, Vivian, incredibly stressed as the bills continue to add up and she’s unsure how to get Carlos’ asthma under control. She’s misplaced the handouts she got from Carlos’ pediatrician, and the videos Carlos is supposed to watch never hold his attention. Carlos’ pediatrician is also quite concerned; she feels like no matter how hard she tries to explain proper asthma care to Carlos and Vivian, she’s still unable to prevent Carlos’ asthma attacks.

Wellapets Icon.jpgThere are new solutions like Wellapets, an asthma management game made by our team at LifeGuard, to address this problem, communicating important healthcare information to kids in their native language – games.

Using educational games in healthcare is no new concept. Work in this space was pioneered by Debra Lieberman and HopeLab, who showed that well-designed games could not only improve kids’ health knowledge and motivation, but could actually keep kids healthier. Impressively, after playing, kids took their medications on time more often and had fewer urgent care visits. Gameplay in two such games, Packy and Marlon and HopeLab’s Re-Mission, which focused on pediatric diabetes and cancer care respectively, spanned multiple game genres. Given the incredible popularity of pet games, like Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin, among kids 6-11, the virtual pet seems like a logical extension, with the emotionally-compelling nature of a pet offering a powerful platform for education on health and sickness.

Despite great efforts in the healthcare community to create better educational materials, the problem is that these materials often fail to keep kids engaged. A well-designed game is proven to connect with kids and hold their attention. An often-overlooked fact is that games, fundamentally, are all about learning: by the time a kid has played a game for a few hours she has learned the rules of the game and how to win. With a virtual pet focused on health, winning has the benefit of better health. In Wellapets, kids take care of their virtual pet dragon, which also has asthma, in order to help it breathe fire and gain rewards, such as stickers for their pet's room.

Wellapets Screenshot.jpgGames are also the universal language of today’s kids and can connect kids who have asthma to those who do not. Seeing a game character who shares the user’s health condition can offer kids reassurance that they are not strange as a result of their health condition. Such an experience can be both empowering and motivating for child, ultimately leading to better health behaviors.

As the medical community begins to embrace games for education, expect to see virtual pets making frequent appearances. Their potential is extensive, from the clinic, to schools to homes. For clinicians at hospitals, health-focused virtual pets can help patients better understand and manage their self-care, ultimately leading to fewer avoidable visits to the doctor’s office. For school-based clinicians, virtual pets can facilitate engaging communication with children and parents as well as collaboration between kids in learning about health. For parents, virtual pets offer a simple, engaging way to help kids understand how to manage their health, and the potential to involve the family more broadly in an educational, entertaining game. This could include educating siblings, other family members, and friends who may interact with an affected child, although they themselves do not have a health condition.

Wellapets can make these benefits a reality for clinicians, kids and parents around the world by developing virtual pets that focus on a variety of health conditions, from asthma to food allergy, obesity and diabetes.

Boston-based LifeGuard Games is a 2013 MassChallenge finalist. Wellapets launches on March 5. Follow them @LifeGuardGames and @Wellapets.


The State of Play blog, organized by MassDiGI, features posts by digital and video game industry insiders writing about creativity, innovation, research, and development in the Massachusetts digital entertainment and apps sectors. Follow along @Mass_DiGI.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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MassDiGI 8-24 287w872.jpgThe State of Play, organized by MassDiGI, features stories by digital and video game developers and business insiders. Follow along @mass_digi.


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