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Game On!
A research project promises to make hospital stays virtual adventures for chronically ill kids

Arun Mathews looks on as a patient maneuvers a virtual race car.

For most adults, video games spell rotting brains, couch potatoes and wasted time. But imagine for a moment that you’re 15, and fate has dumped you with two bum kidneys. While your peers are bonding over homework, dating and clothes, you’re stuck in a dialysis clinic for several sessions a week.

Then one day you show up for treatment and you’re playing tennis, slaying dragons and flying spaceships with other teens in hospitals in places like Tucson, Denver and Boston. Suddenly, it’s clear that video games are not always the wasteful pastimes you once thought they were.

That’s how Arun Mathews sees it, too. Five years ago, as a medical resident, Mathews formed a groundbreaking hypothesis: Interactive online environments hold a wealth of benefits for pediatric patients. Mathews, already a founder of MedSimple, a medical informatics company, established HOPE (for Hospital-based Online Pediatric Environment), a project designed to offer chronically ill children distraction through gaming and comfort through peer contact—all via a high-speed, inter-hospital gaming network.

Mathews laid the groundwork for the project as a health sciences informatics fellow at Johns Hopkins. Now, as director of HOPE, he’s working to move it into the trials phase with Hopkins’ pediatric kidney specialist Susan Furth, Harold Lehmann, director of health sciences informatics, researcher Mary White, and a host of gaming technology experts in this country and abroad.

With a two-month pilot completed successfully, Mathews has turned his focus to a larger study that will evaluate the impact of online gaming in 72 children over a six-month period. He’s working to recruit two additional hospitals and hopes the study will prove that access to gaming peer-support groups can help alleviate depression, reduce pain and boost self-esteem. He also suspects that gaming could help adolescents adhere to dialysis treatment.

“The promise of HOPE is in the network, not the game,” Mathews explains. In other words, if patients know they can go in for treatment and join friends at other hospitals on a virtual adventure, the experience will be less lonely and frustrating.

His project’s long-term roadmap includes such bold plans as outfitting hospital units with local-area-network-equipped video game consoles, creating a unique 3-dimensional realm with top game designers, and engineering a nationwide hospital-based network. Mathews is even optimistic that global pediatric patients will someday log on.

One by one, those dreams are becoming realities entirely through private donations and pro-bono work. People across the United States, Europe and Asia, including researchers at M.I.T.’s Media Lab, have contributed time, money and talent. “It’s a labor of love,” says Mathews, “and a testament to the good that can come of a global community effort.”

—Lindsay Roylance

The next phase of the HOPE trials is slated to begins this winter.



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