Ready, Player?

a screen cap from a video game, where a person is walking through a rocky areaThis story, written by Alyce Palko, originally appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Pitt Med magazine, the med school’s quarterly publication.

Even before the pandemic, people with cystic fibrosis (CF) were advised to keep at least 6 feet from each other. The danger of cross-infection has been a threat they’ve had to keep in mind throughout their lives. That mandated distancing has impeded commiseration and played into the high rates of depression and anxiety experienced by teens with CF. (Their parents are affected, as well.)

Dmitriy Babichenko is betting that educational video games may improve the health of kids with CF and other conditions. With an interdisciplinary team, he received a Pitt Seed Project grant from the Office of the Chancellor to create games about living well, even when you have a disease. Babichenko, a clinical associate professor in the School of Computing and Information, joined forces with colleagues, including experts from the Schools of Pharmacy and Nursing, as well as UPMC, to develop two games. He credits much of the design to computer science students. Pitt English majors built the story structures, and a music student composed the score.

Combined, these elements form narrative-based, role-playing games (think a digital “Dungeons and Dragons”) that kids play as characters who make choices about health. One of the games will provide nutritional guidance to younger children to address obesity. The other is designed to encourage teenagers with CF to become more proactive in their own complex care, which they’ll need to manage themselves one day soon. It also gives them an opportunity to get to know others with CF—remotely.

Babichenko will soon begin a study to determine each game’s effectiveness. He’s already workshopped them with preliminary focus groups. “Ten-year-old kids are brutal,” he said with a laugh.