5 Video Games Taking on Cancer

Here at the Houston Press we have a little saying, and that saying is "Cancer can suck the tail pipe of an uninspected Chrysler." Around 1,500 Americans die daily of the disease, which is like 9/11 happening every other day. It's an ongoing fight to beat back the Tumor Kaiser, and Houston especially is a potent base in that war.

Now, I'm not smart enough to know which end of the test tube is up so my ability to enlist in the fight is minimal. However, I do know video games pretty well, and today I would like to present to you five of them currently being used to kick Big C right in its bulgy groin. Get ready, Player One.

Re-Mission One of the biggest obstacles in treating cancer is helping the patients stay positive and invested in the fight. Hearing that you've got leukemia is a severe blow to anyone, but having a way to visualize exactly what is going on in your body is a fantastic method to help keep up your morale.

In 2006 HopeLab Foundation took consultation from doctors, nurses, and young cancer patients as well as teaming with game developer Realtime Associates to release the free third-person shooter Re-Mission starring the nanobot Roxxi. Roxxi would enter the body of a patient in order to eliminate cancer and related infections at a cellular level with her arsenal of Chemoblasters, Radiation Guns, and antibiotic rocket. In addition, the player would have to monitor the health of the patient and report back to base for instructions should that health deteriorate.

In 2012 a study about the effectiveness of Re-Mission showed that playing the game significantly increased adherence to treatment protocols and knowledge about the disease in patients 13 - 29. Taking the results of the study, the HopeLab team went on to consult with another 120 young cancer patients to produce Re-Mission 2 for iOS and Android, and continues to track the effectiveness in using games to further enhance cancer treatments.

The Patient Empowerment Interactive Video Game The University of Utah is taking the potential of video games to empower pediatric patients extremely seriously, but unlike most of the others who have focused on just the mental aspect of gaming they want to explore the importance of physical motion. See, sick kids don't like to move. They feel bad, have low energy reserves, and may be physically debilitated.

Exercise and motion, not to mention cooperative physical play, are hugely important to the development of a child's social growth and mental state. That's why the Patient Empowerment Interactive Video Game is built more on the Wii model of trying to get kids up and moving around during play. Carol Bruggers, a professor in the University of Utah's Department of Pediatrics and physician at Primary Children's Medical Center, said in a 2012 interview about the game that "a growing number of published studies show promise in effecting specific health-related behavioral changes and self-management of obesity, neurological disorders, cancer or asthma. We envision interactive exergames designed to enhance patient empowerment, compliance and clinical outcomes for specific disease categories".

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Play to Cure: Genes in Space Sure, keeping kids' spirits up is important, but it's not like you can use an actual video game to achieve real scientific progress in the search for a cure, right? True, you can't actually mow down cancer cells with a tiny little space marine at this point, but you can help out the scientists fighting cancer the old-fashioned way by taking some of the grunt work out of their hands.

Play to Cure: Genes in Space takes the tedious task of recognizing faults in gene data and transforms it into a free mobile phone rail shooter. You're seeing a space ship blasting asteroids looking for the valuable Element Alpha, but what scientists are seeing on the other side is you combing through raw data (Which takes hours), looking for indicators that are being used to develop treatments. It's just another great example of science finding out that if they crowdsource their labwork as a game, the world's gamers are more than happy to pitch in, especially if it will help stop cancer or AIDS.

Ben's Game Get your tissues out, folks, because this one is going to be a gusher.

In 2004 the Make-a-Wish Foundation asked 9-year-old leukemia patient Ben Duskin of Nevada if they could take him on a Disney Cruise or something like that. Duskin, a lifelong video game fan, said that if they were offering he'd rather come up with a game that allowed him and others like him to show cancer what it was like to be on the other side of the pain laser.

Enter Eric Johnson, a LucasArts programmer that had worked on The Secret of Monkey Island. Once a week for six months Duskin and Johnson would meet and guide the progress of Ben's Game, which featured an electronic Ben on a skateboard blasting cancer cells and collecting shields to protect against side effects from treatment like nausea. Then they installed it for free in chemotherapy wards across the country because Duskin is an embarrassingly better person than most of us.

"I feel really good in my heart that lots of people are playing it," said Duskin in an interview with the Nevada Daily Mail in 2004. Download it here.

That Dragon, Cancer I hope you still have the tissue box...

Ryan and Amy Green had a son named Joel who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at just 12-months-old. He was given less than a year to live, but managed to make it four more years until he finally succumbed to the disease in March of 2014. His fight is over.

One of the things that kept the Greens going through their ordeal with their son was their aim to create an arthouse video game that express the pain and joy and heart and sorrow of their journey. That Dragon, Cancer doesn't feature lasers or rockets or even cute robotic crabs to fling out into the ocean. It's a living poem of one of the hardest things anyone will ever live through.

It is due out exclusively on the Ouya. While That Dragon, Cancer won't directly aid in staving off any more game overs from the dreaded disease, it can at least stand as a new type of witness to those who suffer from it. In a way, the courage to do so makes it the best game of all.

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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner