When I was in grade school, kids got in trouble for playing with their Giga Pets and Tamagotchis in class. While a smartphone is more likely to be the culprit these days, the idea hasn’t changed: Kids love games.
Mobile health gaming startup LifeGuard Games wanted to combine the stickiness of mobile devices with that of virtual pets to inspire kids to establish healthy habits. Its first app, Wellapets, is a game aimed at teaching kids ages 6-11 who have asthma to manage their condition.
With the help of Boston-area pediatricians including Dr. Gregory Sawicki and Dr. Ann Wu, the team created a game to teach kids with asthma how and when to use their inhalers, to avoid triggers like dust and smoke, and to recognize symptoms that require action.
To do that, the app entrusts kids with taking care of a little dragon who can only blow fire when his asthma is under control. To earn rewards and unlock new levels of the game, kids must give their pet dragon a maintenance inhaler twice a day, clean up triggers in his home and complete other tasks related to asthma maintenance.
Lifeguard Games co-founder Alex Ryu said that his team drew inspiration from research exploring how games effect behavior change in kids. HopeLab’s Re-Mission game, for example, has been found to improve kids’ knowledge about cancer and compliance to medications in a study.
Ryu took a leave of absence from Harvard Medical School to pursue LifeGuard Games full-time. His sister and co-founder, Annie Ryu, is deferring medical school. They had previously built an application called Remindavax that at one point was deployed in 14 rural hospitals in India to function as a basic health record system. But when India’s government issued a mandatory rollout of a similar system, there wasn’t much opportunity left for them there.
Luckily, they met developers and co-founders Sean Chung and Jason Cheng at a Microsoft ImagineCup challenge and came up with the idea of virtual pets as a simple and emotionally compelling way to teach kids about their health.
“We thought that this was the right idea at the right time,” Alex said. “This is a fast-growing space but there wasn’t really anyone doing things specifically around kids’ wellness.”
LifeGuard Games went through the MassChallenge accelerator last year and rounded up some money from angel investors to launch the first installment of Wellapets last month. The app is free to download. Once users complete the introduction levels, there are additional content packs that they can purchase.
Ryu said the team is continuing to update based on user feedback and is in the process of applying for a grant to study the game’s effectiveness. If this app goes over well, a second game for kids with food allergies could be next on the agenda, he said.