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A Student-Built Game Attempts to Improve Health

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The 2011 Finals of Microsoft's Imagine Cup competition is underway this week in New York City. The Imagine Cup brings together student technologists from around the world to showcase technologies they've designed and built. But the technologies here have a particular mandate. They aren't simply new or cool or innovative. They must address some of the world's most pressing issues, as outlined by the United Nation's Millennium Goals.

One of the categories in the Imagine Cup competition is Game Design, and when it comes to video games, the idea of making the world a better place often involves games that are educational, games that raise awareness.

But one of the U.S. teams competing here, Team Dragon, has built a game that goes far beyond that. The game is called Azmo the Dragon, and it's designed to help encourage children who suffer from asthma to maintain their daily logs.

Asthma is the most common chronic illness in children, costing the U.S. alone almost $20 billion in avoidable emergency room visits and lost productivity. For children who suffer from asthma, an attack is a traumatic experience, but routine asthma care -- performing regularly breathing tests -- feels like a chore, and not surprisingly, kids' adherence rates to their illness management routines are very low.

Enter Azmo the Dragon, a mobile game that makes breathing tests fun (and as it's a mobile phone game also means that it's available on a device that a lot of kids not just own but that they carry with them 24-7 and are unlikely to lose). The game connects the mobile phone to a spirometer (the device that asthma sufferers breathe into to record their lung performance), so as kids breathe into it, they control Azmo a fire-breathing dragon. Azmo's fiery breath destroys villages and castles and there are various worlds and levels through which kids can play.


The game itself is good fun -- it's a side-scrolling, RPG -- and as such, is likely to make daily test-taking seem like much less of a burden. But that's just part of the beauty of this game. By maintaining regular tests, children's lung capacity can be assessed and it will be easier to tell when an asthma attack is impending (typically asthma sufferers experience several days of declining lung function beforehand). Through regular monitoring, there's a better chance for intervention.

The students who built the game attend Rice University and at the Imagine Cup are showcasing not only their game but also the spirometer hardware, (developed at Rice) which is far cheaper than other apparatuses on the market. Typically these cost around $500, but the one used with Azmo the Dragon costs between $50 and $100 and is open source.

We hear a lot about how "gamification" can change education, but Team Dragon has shown that it's a viable way to affect a different kind of change, too.

Disclosure: Microsoft paid for my travel to attend the Imagine Cup

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