Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Online Games Help Sick Kids To Cope With Their Illnesses

Serious illness such as cancer, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia can be frightening and confusing for children, but the Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation wants to help educate today's tech-savvy kids about these diseases in a way that appeals to them: through the Internet.

With almost a third of online gamers under age 18, it's no surprise that most children turn to their computer screens for entertainment. So Starlight tapped into this growing interest, and this summer it made eight of its games available free online to help children who suffer from serious diseases educate themselves in a fun and interesting way.

The digital games, which were developed in 2001 but were not available on CD-ROM until now, provide school-age kids with "basic disease concepts, pain management and coping techniques and skills for communicating pain to adults," according to the foundation, a non-profit organization that provides support to seriously ill children and their families.

The Starlight offerings are just the latest in a string of interactive games that are designed to help children come to grips with disorders that grip their bodies.

According to the Children's Technology Review, almost 100 games aimed at educating kids about their health and wellness have moved onto the interactive virtual gaming scene since 1994, and many of them can be accessed free online.

•Ben's Game, which is offered in nine languages from the Make-A-Wish Foundation's San Francisco Bay Area chapter, allows kids to destroy mutated cancer cells to help visualize beating their diseases. The game offers three levels of difficulty, and players can customize their own protagonist. Ben's Game can be found at Makewish.org.

•The Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation website Sparktop.org features six games and other interactive tools such as blogs and sound mixers to help children with dyslexia connect with other learning-disabled children and learn to manage their disorders.

•At osmosisjones.warnerbrothers.com, Mystery of the Rash Outbreak, based on the 2001 animated movie Osmosis Jones, takes players inside the human body in the role of a white blood cell detective on a mission to stop an infectious rash.

Joan Ford, Starlight's vice president of strategic initiatives, says online trivia games such as Starlight's The Sickle Cell Slime-O-Rama Game and Uncovering the Mysteries of Bone Marrow make it easy for children to understand their diseases.

Slime-O-Rama, for example, uses colorful graphics and questions to test players on their knowledge of sickle cell disease, a chronic blood disorder that alters the shape of red blood cells, causing pain and tissue damage. The interactive game doles out advice such as how to deal with pain episodes, how many glasses of water to drink a day and why the disease is not contagious.

Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Technology Review, which provides product reviews for child-oriented interactive media, calls the Starlight games "a terrific poster child for how to use the Web to help children understand specific (health) conditions."

Says Ford, "Kids love the interactivity, getting information in a format they like using as opposed to reading a pamphlet."

The online format also allows the foundation to update the content of the games with the latest medical information. And with the wide reach of the Internet, the Starlight foundation can touch more children who have serious diseases. Ford says more than 25 other websites provide links to the Starlight games.

"It's good for kids to have direct knowledge about what affects them," says Osbia Jones, program coordinator for the South Central Pennsylvania Sickle Cell Council, which distributes Starlight's Slime-O-Rama to its members. "It's a way to be self-actuating and begin the process of taking control of their health early."

Buckleitner says interactive video games are effective learning tools because they allow children to feel empowered.

But the games, which Buckleitner calls "images on glass," are removed from real-life experience, which goes against one of the fundamental aspects of learning, especially for children, he says. Health professionals caution that online games should be just one of many tools parents use to help their children deal with a serious illness.

Donald Schifrin, communications chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that although the field of educational Internet games is "blossoming," parents shouldn't turn to interactive games as a substitute for face-to-face psychological support.

"(Online games) are part of the healing process for youngsters but shouldn't be the only pursuit. There is more progress when the entire family is involved in the therapeutic process," Schifrin says.

Tonya Hodge, 42, whose son Jaylen, 12, has sickle cell disease, says she started playing Slime-O-Rama about a year ago on CD-ROM, but now that the game is online, she likes to play it more often to refresh her memory about Jaylen's condition.

"(The game) helps me understand," Hodge says. "I like to see if I know what I'm talking about."

Jaylen says he plays Slime-O-Rama every once in a while and believes the online games have helped him understand his disease better. He even seems to have it out for Slime-O-Rama's host. What's his favorite part? "When you get to slime him!"

Copyright © 2006 USA TODAY

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