By Nancy Molina, Graduate Student
Collaborating with the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences, student game developers in the School of Communication have created Zoo Rush, an award-winning adventure game that aims to increase awareness about sickle cell disease and reduce the stigma often associated with the painful inherited blood disorder that slows blood flow.
Representing the UM team, Zoo Rush developers Ebtissam “Ebby” Wahman and Fan “Franklin” Zhang brought the Silver Award in the Games for Good category back from the 2014 International Serious Play Awards held July 24 at the University of Southern California.
In the game, which can be played on the Web or by download to any Android or iOS device, players take on the role of a zookeeper with sickle cell disease who, on his or her first day on the job, faces a monumental challenge: All the animals escape.
The goal is for the player to capture each escaped animal before time runs out. Due to the zookeeper’s medical condition, the player must avoid infections, hydrate often, check in with their physician, and take their medication, such as hydroxyurea, the only FDA-approved medication for sickle cell disease.
Assistant Professor Clay Ewing, Zoo Rush’s project manager and game designer, said the Serious Play award validates the work of students and faculty in the School of Communication’s new Interactive Media program, who collaborated with Lanetta Jordan, M.D., M.P.H., M.S.P.H., associate professor of Public Health Sciences and president of the Foundation for Sickle Cell Disease Research, to build awareness about the disease that largely affects people who come from or whose ancestors came from parts of the world where malaria is or was common.
As Ewing notes, new programs must establish credibility, and the Serious Play Association’s recognition is a sign that the program is on the right path. He and the Zoo Rush team are particularly proud that the game is proving successful at increasing awareness of sickle cell disease, the most common genetic disorder of newborns in the U.S.
“My friend’s daughter downloaded the game and couldn’t stop playing,” Ewing said. “Later that night, she asked her dad about sickle cell disease. He didn’t know anything about it, so they spent the night finding out about it online. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do: Get a person engaged in an experience to the point where they begin seeking new knowledge on the topic and spreading the word.”
Wahman, who graduated from the UM College of Engineering’s electrical engineering program in 2012, had limited knowledge of sickle cell before taking part in the project. She said Zoo Rush was the first full game she developed and the experience helped her grow both as a developer and a person. “I feel honored that I was a part of such a project where I not only made a fun game, but also raised awareness about a disease that doesn’t get enough attention and affects millions of people around the world,” Wahman said.
Added Zoo Rush’s sound designer, Isabella Douzoglou, a motion picture and computer science major, “Increasing awareness through a fun medium is brilliant, especially when it’s for a good cause. It was a pleasure to be involved.”
Students from all majors at the School of Communication had the opportunity to test the game on various devices in an open playtest. They said the game gave them some insight on sickle cell disease and left them curious to learn more. The developers used this feedback to make adjustments to the game.
In sickle cell disease, red blood cells take on a sickle or crescent shape. Normal red blood cells are round and move through the blood vessels with ease, carrying oxygen to all parts of the body. Sickle-shaped blood cells often get stuck in blood vessel passageways, slowing down blood flow and preventing oxygen from reaching certain parts of the body. This can cause severe pain and other serious problems, such as infection, anemia, and stroke.
As Jordan notes, the transition from pediatric to adult care in young adults with sickle cell disease is becoming a major public health issue. Studies show that young adults transitioning to adult medical care are at a much higher risk for early death, especially shortly after leaving pediatric care. For some, the shift away from pediatric services results in the loss of an established primary medical home or access to health insurance.
In addition, Jordon said, these young adults are especially at risk of suffering from complex psychosocial issues due to stigmatization, the process of identifying an attribute and associating it with a stereotype that negatively labels a person or group.
Children and adolescents with sickle cell often experience low self-esteem or embarrassment. Pain is one of the most stigmatizing aspects of the disease, which often requires treatment with opioids. As a result, Jordan said, up to 80 percent of young adults and adults with sickle cell disease choose to manage their pain at home. Zoo Rush developers hope to reduce this number by targeting young adults in the sickle cell community and influencing the way people perceive the disease.