How specially-designed games may mitigate the worst side-effects of cancer treatments
Cancer is a devastating and unfortunate reality of our lives. It’s estimated that 1.8 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the United States in 2020, resulting in approximately 606,520 deaths. Despite the fact that cancer deaths in the United States are down a staggering 27% in 25 years, it’s still marked as the second leading cause of the death in the country, behind only heart disease.
There are very few of us lucky enough to get through our daily lives without feeling the effects of cancer, whether it be a loved one, a friend, a coworker, or ourselves that develop it. While the physical effects of cancer are obviously devastating, from the tumors themselves ravaging someone’s body to the horrid side effects of most treatments, a much less talked about — but equally as important — aspect of this horrid disease is the psychological and emotional toll it takes on people. Understandably, those who get diagnosed with cancer — especially breast, head, and neck cancer — have a high chance of developing some sort of depression, anxiety, and (even if they best the disease) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Compounding this, many individuals going through chemotherapy (a drug treatment that uses potent chemicals to kill fast-growing cells in your body) suffer through different cognitive and mental challenges due to the treatment. Approximately 75% of patients who undergo chemotherapy experience cerebral issues like learning new information or tasks, have trouble multitasking, recalling common words, names, or dates, as well as generally taking longer to process information.
Research in the treatment of cancer is always developing and changing, with researchers and doctors utilizing the best technology on offer to try to make combating the disease as quick, easy, painless, and effective as possible. It would seem that one of these modern day marvels is interactive entertainment, with the power of video games being harnessed as a legitimate addition to the treatment of those suffering from cancer. This idea has lead to researchers developing games specifically catering towards cancer patients, and analyzing whether or not those games can be used as a legitimate form of treatment towards the deadly disease.
Empower Stars! is one of those video games. Developed for iOS (iPads in particular) in 2018, Empower Stars! is designed to help children cope with the realities of cancer in a digestible and fun way, turning players into intergalactic explorers destined to make new discoveries amongst the stars. Along with the game itself, a special 3D case blueprint was conceived and printed to utilize the gyroscopic capabilities of the iPad, with one of the main focuses of Empower Stars! being the implementation of physical activity and fitness in an exciting, engaging, and simple way. These exercises were devised mainly to increase upper body strength, overall flexibility, and mobility while remaining fun, natural, and comfortable. The exercises consist of 30 second intervals of activity (specifically devised to feel the burn of lactic acid buildup and increase heart rate without fatiguing the player) which include things like shaking, spinning, and twisting the iPad. These workouts take place at game “power up stations” and provide power for the player’s ship to continue expedition. Unsurprisingly, these activities were performed with more vigor by those who felt better, so the game was designed to detect limited amounts of iPad movement, allowing those who don’t feel as energetic as others due to the disease to still enjoy the game and progress.
Cancer is a terrifying and horrible experience for people of every age, but it’s especially difficult to explain cancer to children in a meaningful and easily understandable fashion. Due to this, a secondary focus of Empower Stars! is that of explanation. The game attempts to answer a variety of questions children may have pertaining to cancer, such as “What exactly is cancer?” and “What is chemotherapy, radiation, and their side effects?” The information provided is incorporated into the exercises themselves in the way of scrolling text, whether it be giving information while the games are being played or displayed while the next section is loading.. Along with this distribution method, information is also given in the way of mini games, such as a nutrition based game that requires players to move the iPad to separate food (like apples and French fries) into categories. Mini games like these are implemented to visually demonstrate how to stay healthy while simultaneously involving the player in physical activity.
Empower Stars! was received relatively well by doctors and other health care professionals. More importantly, children seemed to connect with the game, and — for the most part — it succeeded in its trial mission. Empowerment Stars! demonstrated that children are willing and often excited to participate in activities outside of traditional medicine and therapy to help them get through their disease. More than anything, Empower Stars! lives up to its namesake: it empowers kids by arming them with the knowledge and tools necessary to combat their disease and attempt to control the ostensibly uncontrollable.
A separate study conducted by the Isfahan University of Medical Sciences in Isfahan, Iran also tasked cancer patients with playing a game during their time fighting the disease. The game, titled The City of Dreams, is a computer game designed, much like Empower Stars!, with cancer patients in mind. The City of Dreams includes multiplayer games, puzzles, and “Ray Missions,” which tasks players with destroying unhealthy cancerous cells within a body, guided by a robot companion. Much like with the Empower Stars! study, the results are promising. Along with providing more knowledge on what cancer is and how it affects the body, the general quality of life improved for the entire group who played The City of Dreams, regardless of their race, gender, or age. Patients who played were able to increase in their physical activity, as well as simultaneously decrease their fatigue. With these increases also came the motivation to improve their level of self care, whether that be personal hygiene, getting enough sleep, or attempting to get more exercise. This is different than Empower Stars! in that The City of Dreams did not incorporate physical activity into the actual gameplay, rather bettering quality of life substantially enough to warrant a want for more activity in the patients.
Perhaps most surprising about the The City of Dreams study were results from the patients’ blood tests, obtained using a CVAC (a small device that’s used to give treatment and to draw blood), which showed that participants’ fear and stress levels decreased. This is coupled with a significant reduction in heart rate, anxiety, and nausea following chemotherapy for those who played The City of Dreams. Maybe most importantly, the quelling of fear surrounding chemotherapy meant that the patients were more likely to continue their treatments, as they could overcome their apprehension of the side effects. Though we have no cure for cancer, treatment has been shown to increase the likelihood of survival and prolong life. Despite this, due to the many side effects of treatment, they stop prematurely. The treatments we have available to us are not fool proof, but the continuation of them is paramount in defeating cancer.
The treatment itself can be equally as devastating on an individual’s psyche as it is to their physical health. Chemotherapy specifically can cause what’s known as “chemo brain,” which is a common term describing the thinking and memory problems that occur during and after cancer treatment. Video games have already been shown to help fight against memory loss and reduce the risk of dementia, so researchers have decided to try to use it to combat chemo brain. Some doctors have been recommending mind games such as Sudoku along with 20–30 minutes of video gaming three times a week, and have likened it to the importance of completing homework. While some may see video gaming as “mindless fun,” in reality the mental load on your brain while playing games is pretty taxing. Reflexes, hand-eye coordination, memory retention, perception and decision-making skills are all salient parts of your cranial muscle, and video games give these muscles an important work out. With as many cerebral benefits as video games provide, researchers and medical professionals are starting to seriously look into them as a viable treatment for the devastating mental side effects of important procedures like chemotherapy.
Despite showing promise, these studies are just that; studies. Video games are yet to be designated as a miracle treatment for cancer side effects, and a doctor should always be consulted before attempting anything new in a treatment plan. The fact that they’re being considered is extremely important, however. More important still is the fact that they’re actually showing promise in helping combat one of the most deadly diseases to plague our species. Cancer can be overwhelming, but medical professionals will always try to utilize new technology to create the safest and most efficient treatments available. I’m all the more comforted knowing that that technology could potentially be the hobby I love so much, and it goes to show how widespread the enjoyment and therapeutic nature of video games actually is. It would seem the interest the medical community has in games as medicine is showing no signs of wavering, meaning it is absolutely feasible — fingers crossed — that part of a comprehensive and effective treatment plan for something as ruinous as cancer could be to take time to sit back, unwind, and play some video games.
Hello everyone! As always, thank you for reading. Cancer is an awful disease, and I truly hope research into the topic of video games as treatment is continued to help guide those afflicted back into a healthy, normal life. There’s a ton of cancer charities available to donate to, but my favorite three are the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, and the Prevent Cancer Foundation, if you feel so inclined! Either way, thank you for taking the time to read.