Video game could help teenage patients manage pain

Henry Lo and Janice Ng, co-creators of the video game Farmoo | Photo courtesy of Janice Ng and Henry Lo

Henry Lo and Janice Ng, co-creators of the video game Farmoo | Photo courtesy of Janice Ng and Henry Lo

Some teenage patients at BC Children’s Hospital will have a new tool to help manage their pain, thanks to a video game created by two SFU students. The video game Farmoo has received the green light for testing.

If Henry Lo and Janice Ng, students in SFU Surrey’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT), have their way, their game could develop and expand into a multi-player platform and with an extensive virtual experience.

“It’s going to go forward. We’re going to refine the game. We hope to install [it] in the hospital, depending on the interest [and] the alignment for both SFU and UBC universities,” says Lo.

Volunteers needed

Farmoo’s next step in its development is dependent on voluntary participation. They’re looking for 10–20 participants.

Lo says they are looking for teenage patients because they would have a better understanding and can better articulate what factors in Farmoo are helpful to them in managing pain. Ng and Lo are about to iron out the details for testing the game.

“Based on the patients’ feedback, we would improve the game. We might go through several tests, polish back and then have it in hospital as installation. Down the road, it will be there so patients can use it whenever they want it. That’s how we envision it,” says Lo.

“For the multi-player, it doesn’t have to be within the hospital. Kids who have friends that are outside the hospital can play as well,” says Ng, who now works with the City of Surrey.

Virtual Reality – beyond entertainment

Farmoo – the game. | Photo courtesy of Janice Ng and Henry Lo

Farmoo – the game. | Photo courtesy of Janice Ng and Henry Lo

Part of the reason Lo wants to make the game multi-player is to address social isolation that patients face while staying in the hospital forlong stretches of time.

“Social isolation is something that is overlooked sometimes. This is why we use this game to try to address that, especially the multi-player platform part, which is coming soon,” explains Lo, who was diagnosed with lymphoma while a Grade 11 student at Surrey’s Fraser Heights Secondary School.

He wants to tap into new uses for virtual reality (VR) that are not just for entertainment purposes.

“I think VR has the potential of not just entertainment but [to] experience something over distance. Telephone was one invention we have to conquer distance and that is just voice. This is graphics – it’s not just two-dimensional pictures, but spatial information,” he says.

Ng explains their long-term vision of making the game into a cave-like virtual reality. Rather than using the goggles that game players put on, they will be in a full room environment where the players can be in the centre and explore everywhere around them.

A more developed version of Farmoo could include growing more fruits and vegetables.

“People can share their garden or their farms. Maybe people can purchase different seeds from other people for what they’ve done,” says Ng.

Developing the game

Ng and Lo, who met in a first year class in university, knew they wanted to work on a project together. In their final year at SFU, they both took a directed study class. They knew they wanted to create a video game that had a practical application.

“We wanted to do a game but we didn’t want to do just any game. We don’t want to do it for entertainment purposes because tons of people are doing that already. It’s not unique enough. It doesn’t contribute to the community. We want to make something for a cause,” says Lo.

They found SIAT Professor Diane Gromala to supervise them. She has a Pain Studies lab that specializes in researching how to create game distraction for chronic pain.

“That’s how we found ourselves making a game for teenage cancer patients,” says Ng, who was in and out of B.C. Children’s Hospital growing up due to a weakened immune system.

If she had the game Farmoo available when she was sick at the hospital, she thinks her stay would have been more fun and interactive because the wait time was usually very long.

“Having something to do would bring me out of my pain situation or my high fever,” says Ng.