Use of gaming to combat loneliness in chronically ill children

Meet... Dionysis Alexandridis

Children with chronic illness have fewer interactions with their peers than healthy children. For example, they miss out on children's parties, or moments at school due to tiredness or hospital visits. As a result, they lack some of the social-emotional skills that are important for making friends. Dionysis Alexandridis is building Ruby's Game for his doctoral research in order to reduce loneliness among these children.

How did you end up working as a game technologist?

“At one point, I had to make a choice of study programme. Back then, I did nothing but gaming. I discovered that Utrecht University offered a course in game technology and was sold right away. I like programming, but I wanted more social elements and something with a social impact. For my Master's thesis, I researched a game that can connect children with and without a disability. I never really intended to do a doctorate. But when this vacancy became available, it was a great match for me. The research involved an applied game that would reduce loneliness among chronically ill children. This allowed me to program and do something of importance to society at the same time.”

How did you approach your research?

“I first had to clarify who I was actually going to design a game for. And with which goals in mind. A whole world opens up if you dive into psychology research for an entire year when you have a science background. I also spoke to various child psychologists and paediatricians who have done a lot of research and are in contact with chronically ill children. After discussions with these experts, I decided to focus on the social-emotional skills of chronically ill children. Sick children have less interaction with their peers than healthy children. For example, they don’t go to as many children's parties because they suffer from tiredness or have to go to the hospital several times a week. Children mainly learn social-emotional skills through interactions with each other. These skills are very important for building and maintaining friendships. More friendships reduce loneliness and strengthen the child’s resilience.”

How does the game you are designing actually work?

“Ruby's mission is a computer game, in which four children play together and can talk to each other via their microphones. They need to collaborate to go through the game. When a peer tells you something about his feelings, you get an idea of the other person's world view. The first level of the game is ready. But now, I want to focus even more on personalising the gaming experience. What does a child need to do in order to really learn something from the game? That's what I want the game to be about. For example, if you can see that a child is not participating properly, I can make sure that this child gets a hint and they can only continue with the game if the child passes on the hint.”

Which challenges are you facing?

“I find it extremely difficult to get into the mind of a child. That's why we are testing the game on children. The reactions are varied, but super nice. When you design a game yourself, you sometimes think: ‘What am I even doing?’ But as soon as children play it, they become enthusiastic. So apparently, you're doing something good,” laughs Dionysis.

When you design a game yourself, you sometimes think: ‘What am I even doing?’ But as soon as children play it, they become enthusiastic. So apparently, you're doing something good.

What do you hope to achieve?

“The aim of my research has shifted slightly over the years. I started the process with the idea of developing a good game.  Over time, I discovered that little research had been done on this topic and that I had to start from the basics. Now, my main hope is to add a piece of knowledge to the puzzle. And in this way, I also hope that I can lay a foundation for games that focus on the social-emotional development of chronically ill children.”

Curious to find out more about Ruby's Game and the research of Dionysus Alexandridis? On Sunday 2 October, children can play the game during the Weekend of Science. Here, parents are invited to take on the role of researcher.