Diabetics Benefit from Gaming App


Dapper was created to change behavior and promote better health for patients with type 2 diabetes. The app uses features from popular social media games such as adding friends, collecting points, and earning the right to purchase items from the in-game store as well as an educational component and a way to track blood sugar levels. Screenshots courtesy Dr. Monica McGill.

Serious and Social Combine for Better Outcomes

What comes to mind when you picture college students and video games? It’s probably safe to assume you aren’t thinking “real-life experience” or “health benefits.” However, those phrases perfectly describe one project in Bradley’s game design capstone class.

Led by Dr. Monica McGill, assistant professor of game design, a team of students has partnered with a group from UnityPoint Health – Methodist to develop a serious game focused on improving the outcomes of patients with type 2 diabetes. Serious games — games with a purpose beyond simple entertainment — are nothing new. They already are used in business, government, and healthcare, making this collaboration a natural fit.

After a few meetings, McGill and Methodist’s group decided to create a game that motivates patients with type 2 diabetes to improve their health: “We felt it was important because of the major role diabetes plays in the healthcare of our patients and how much focus we put on it,” explained Dr. Falak Bhatt, a resident at Methodist.

Once their goal was established, McGill’s core team of four started developing the game. Her assistant producer, Andrew Howell ’14, was responsible for sound and structural design as well as overall quality assurance. Steve Peters ’13, the art and animation lead, created concepts for the characters and environments. Nick Trompeter ’13 held the role of database programmer, which included creating the administrative “backend” system and a bit of sound design. As lead programmer, Ian Yeager ’13 built the basic coding framework and assisted with some server needs.

Each of the leads had approached McGill with a desire to work on a project months before the Methodist connection was made — some even offering to work for no class credit. As a result, she secured a grant from Bradley’s Office for Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development (now the Center for Teaching Excellence and Learning) to help fund their time on the project, making it possible to work through winter break. “When the entire team of 11 interactive media and computer science majors returned to class for the spring semester, we could start on the first day and take off from there,” McGill said.

Dapper’s core team worked through winter break to keep the project moving forward. From left are Ian Yeager ‘13, Dr. Monica McGill, Nick Trompeter ’13Steve Peters ‘13 and Andrew Howell ‘13.

Originally referred to as “D App” for “Diabetic Application,” the game eventually received a new, more appropriate name. “We had a focus on dressing up animals in fancy clothes, and it was already called ‘Dapp,’ so we went with ‘Dapper,’” Howell explained. The team subsequently named itself the aDAPtors.

After the school year ended and the initial four aDAPtors graduated, Dapper continued to progress with new key student Joe Ruel ’14. “Right now, I’m programming the art and implementing it into the game to give it more personality,” Ruel said of his summertime role. “I’m also working on the ‘confetti points,’ which players earn to purchase clothing for their avatars.” Ruel will continue his work with a new capstone class this fall.

Bradley’s role was primarily building the game, and the doctors from Methodist provided the medical expertise. “We have been involved in submitting the initial IRB [Institutional Review Board] and gathering a patient pool with whom we could discuss the day-to-day effects of diabetes,” Bhatt said.

“We also helped write trivia questions so that every time patients use the app, they will be able to judge their own knowledge of diabetes,” added fellow Methodist resident Dr. Fizza Deen.

Even in its early stages, the medical staff recognized the advantages Dapper would offer. Primarily, it will provide more opportunities to connect with patients they don’t usually see as often as they would like. In fact, the game includes a feature that enables the doctors to play along. “If you have an idea, a tip, or anything else you want to share with your patients, it gives you a great way to do so — and to multiple patients at a time,” noted Dr. Amanda Wright, the Methodist residents’ faculty adviser.

Bradley’s aDAPtors provide monthly status reports to the team at UnityPoint Health – Methodist. From left are Dr. Falak Bhatt, Dr. Amanda Wright, Joe Ruel ’14, Dr. Monica McGill and Dr. Fizza Deen. 

A select group of Wright’s patients will serve as a trial study, tracking their statuses to document any changes in outcomes. According to Erin Miller, director of care integration at Methodist, “once that step is done and if it’s successful, we’ll work with Bradley to create some marketing material and try to promote it to all the diabetic patients across our offices.” Currently, there are no plans to make Dapper available to the general public.

Although the medical staff admits to being wowed by the extreme detail required on the technological side, they truly enjoyed stepping out of their comfort zones. “In medicine, we are honed in to a specific type of learning,” Bhatt commented. “Seeing all the computer graphics and design, hearing the jargon … it was a really cool experience.”

While the students anticipate the project will be a spectacular addition to their resumes, they are looking forward to the trial phase and feedback. Even more so, they want to know it works. “Honestly, I just hope it helps patients with diabetes,” Peters noted. 

“Not only help them, but hopefully they’re having fun,” Yeager added. “I hope they’re not thinking, ‘Oh, this is helping me, but it’s just medicine I have to take another dose of.’ Hopefully, they think of it more like that awesome cherry-flavored medicine you like to take.” 

For the second consecutive year, Bradley has been ranked a top school for game design by two different organizations. The Princeton Review named the University one of the “Top Undergraduate Schools to Study Video Game Design.” Additionally, Animation Career Review listed Bradley as one of the “Top 50 Schools in the U.S. for Game Design and Development” and “Top 20 Animation and Game Design Schools in the Midwest.”

— C. M.