Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center

Allergy Play

Having Fun, Coping with Allergies

A developing game teaches kids how to have fun with their peanut allergies.

The computer game works like any other: A solo player racks up points to buy new fish, plants and accessories for a virtual fish tank. But, unlike Minecraft or Fruit Ninja, this interactive software helps children ages eight to twelve manage their peanut allergies.

“In the past five to ten years, there’s been a big increase in the number of kids with food allergies,” says Elizabeth McQuaid, the staff psychologist at Bradley/Hasbro Children’s Research Center and associate professor at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School who spearheaded the project. She estimates pediatric food allergies affect 4 to 8 percent of children in the United States.

Elizabeth McQuaid, the staff psychologist at Bradley/Hasbro Children’s Research Center. Photo by RI Monthly.
Elizabeth McQuaid, the staff psychologist at Bradley/Hasbro Children’s Research Center. (Photo by RI Monthly.)

In conjunction with Georgia-based developer Virtually Better, McQuaid and her team are working to address this problem with engaging software. Set in a lively school cafeteria, the game reveals three scenarios that mimic social situations kids with peanut allergies must face: how to decline food, how to respond to a bully and what happens during an allergic reaction. The player clicks through colorful scenes, picking appropriate responses to what’s unfolding onscreen while practical feedback sounds through the speakers.

“One of the things we talk about in the bully scenario is using sense of humor, using distraction and having a couple of different things you can try,” McQuaid says. “Interestingly, we saw that kids like to select everything just to see what happens.” Just don’t expect to add any new fish or treasure chests to your tank.

The trial, which ran from August to March 2014, was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The young participants played the game approximately three times per week in their own homes, and McQuaid says the bullying scene in particular sparked conversation between kids and their parents. “A lot of them talked about having multiple strategies to use,” she says.Another level, focused on label reading, prompts the player to keep or toss foreign and familiar foods like Blow Pops, Cheez-Its or trail mix, based on their ingredients. After some hard work and repetitive play, kids can move on to a flashcard game that matches visual signs of allergic reactions with symptom terms.

Scenes from McQuaid's food allergy game. Photo courtesy of RI Monthly.

Playing the Game

Scenes from Dr. McQuaid's food allergy game.

Photo courtesy of RI Monthly.

At the suggestion of trial families, McQuaid hopes to expand the scenes to include less-structured settings, including family gatherings and school or sports team potlucks. And, funding dependent, McQuaid hopes to build the program so it appeals to children with other food allergies, including milk and eggs. “Once we have the fuller package for food allergies, this model could be applied to diabetes, celiac disease, asthma and other kinds of situations where children have to navigate self-management activities,” McQuaid says.

The game has the potential for wide distribution, either directly to families or to physicians’ offices and schools, she says. And the kids are demanding more: They want more complexity in the game, more fish to win and more elaborate tanks. “I think they are playing it and enjoying it and not realizing that they’re absorbing the information, too.”

To add your name to the trial waitlist, call 401-793-8652.

This article was written by Kelsey Quinn and originally appeared in Rhode Island Monthly magazine and is used with permission. Photos are courtesy of Rhode Island Monthly.