Game to help children with cancer

15 August 2022

Animated animals in scrubs in a room at Skandion Clinic.

The game describes what happens during radiation therapy. The setting is animated but resembles the rooms at the Skandion Clinic.

Children with cancer can find radiotherapy distressing. A research group at Uppsala University is currently developing a computer game to prepare children for therapy and hopefully make it less scary.

Children with cancer from all over Sweden come to the Skandion Clinic in Uppsala for proton beam radiotherapy. The youngest are treated under general anaesthetic, but those who are a little older and can manage to keep still can be treated while awake. Many of them find the therapy distressing. 

Portrait of Catarina Cederved
Catarina Cederved, PhD student at 
Department of Women's and Children's Health
Photo: Steven Quigley

“Radiotherapy doesn’t hurt, but the children are left on their own and have to lie completely still. Also, many have radiation targeting the head, and then they have to wear a rigid mask that is strapped tight to the table,” says Catarina Cederved, doctoral student at the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health.

Cederved is coordinator of a project which is now in the process of developing a computer game designed to prepare children for what lies ahead. The project is interdisciplinary and the game has been devised jointly with the Department of Women's and Children's Health, the Department of Game Design and the Department of Informatics and Media. 

“It’s a learning game in which children play through a radiotherapy session and get to see different coping strategies that they can use to help them lie still during radiation. Just as in real life, the character is rewarded with beads after completing different treatments.”

Using a map, the children can also click their way into rooms that resemble the environments they will encounter at the Skandion Clinic and Ronald McDonald House, where most of them stay during their treatment. The game also allows them to collect various things and includes mini-games.

Children with cancer have been consulted

Children have participated in the development of the game to capture their perspectives and opinions. The group that created the game included nine children with cancer who had already undergone radiotherapy. They were asked to talk about their experience of the treatment and what they thought the game ought to show. The children had a chance to test several prototypes and then answer questions about how well they thought the game matched their experiences. The project team incorporated as many of the children’s ideas and comments as possible in the continued development.

Scene from the game depicting the monitor room at Scandion Clinic
The game has been devised in collaboration with children with cancer and developed by lecturers and students at the Department of Game Design at Campus Gotland. Photo: Screenshot

Preferable to avoid anaesthetising patients

A study is now underway investigating how well the game actually works for children who are about to undergo treatment for the first time. Catarina Cederved will then look at the effect on their degree of anxiety and whether the game has any impact on the number who need to have a general anaesthetic before treatment.

“We hope to be able to reduce the use of general anaesthesia. Repeated general anaesthesia requires lengthy periods of fasting, which is not good for a growing individual. In these cases, the body is already stressed by illness and is therefore in even greater need of an optimal intake of food,” says Cederved, who adds,

“For the individual, every time they don’t need anaesthesia is an advantage. Just having children feeling more secure in a healthcare setting is an advantage.”

Once the study has been completed, the game will be further adjusted before release. The idea is to make it available to all children who need to undergo radiotherapy at the Skandion Clinic. The project is funded by the Swedish Childhood Cancer Fund. 

Last modified: 2021-02-14