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Not Just Fun and Games

Congrats! You've Killed All The Cancer!

Yuko Oda and Dave Kristula

Bullets blaring, “T-cell” scurries around the screen. Blam, blam, blam…killing them one by one. Ooh, a G-CSF shot! Quickly he finds his way to the shot…. ahhhhh, he got it! Now in “super invincible” mode he’s even faster and stronger, killing those cancer cells like no one’s business.

No, this isn’t a movie or even a cartoon. It’s The Cancer Game, an arcade-type computer game originally conceived by David Kristula ’04 and created in a partnership this past summer with Yuko Oda, assistant professor of digital media.

Made possible through an Albright Creative & Research Experience (ACRE) grant and a contribution by Macromedia, Inc., Kristula and Oda’s Cancer Game helps cancer patients visualize the elimination of cancer cells. “People who are optimistic about their treatment live longer and get cured,” says Kristula, who himself is a survivor of Nodular Sclerosing Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. “If you think you’re going to win, you will,” he says. And that’s what the game is all about.

Kristula began to conceptualize the game in 1998 during a month-long stay at the Hershey Medical Center for a stem cell rescue. “I was bored and wished I had a game to play,” he says, “something to take my mind off the cancer.”

The Cancer GameBut before the pair set out to do any programming or design, they spent several weeks conducting theoretical research on cancer and its relationship to visualization, imagery and art therapy. “We know from our own physical health and research that stress does produce disease and can trigger sickness,” says Oda. “The human psyche is so connected to the physical. We’re trying to make something you can just lose yourself in. If you’re sick, that’s what you want to do.”

Once they discovered that no other game exactly like what they hoped to produce was on the market, Kristula, a computer science and digital media major, began work on programming while Oda focused on art development. “I played about 20 to 30 hours of Super Mario Brothers as part of the research,” Kristula says. Cancer Game is modeled after the three most successful games of all times – Super Mario Brothers, Space Invaders and Pac Man.

One of the greatest challenges, says Oda, was figuring out how to end the game. In most games, the player dies and the words “Game Over” appear on the screen. “We didn’t want to do that for cancer patients,” she says. So instead, T-cell, the main character, just runs out of energy and the words, “I’m tired, let’s play again later,” appear.

Developing realistic graphics was also important to the pair. “We wanted to create things that really resemble what’s going on during treatment,” Oda says. The game comes complete with a chemotherapy bag that gives T-cell his energy and a G-CSF shot, a booster to the immune system, to give him super strength.

“Right now we’re working out the bugs,” says Kristula. But, he says he’d eventually like to distribute the game to hospitals and give a free copy to every cancer patient. A free test version of the game is available online at www.cancergame.org.

“The goal of the game is just to feel good,” says Kristula. “There’s no boss with cancer. They’re just little things running around that you have to kill.”

— Jennifer Post Stoudt

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