Making Mars is a joint project between three current and former faculty members from the University of Advancing Technology, staff from Kinetic Muscles Inc., and a team of Neuropsychologists and clinicians from Emory University in Atlanta, funded with a Department of Defense grant through TATRC and the Wounded Warrior Initiative. This initiative was designed to encourage the research and development of economical, effective means of treating our wounded troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
One of the most common injuries among wounded troops is Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), caused when the shock wave of an explosion passes through the brain and causes swelling, tissue damage and bleeding. TBI is an extremely challenging condition to treat and to live with; symptoms can range from memory loss and visual problems to shortness of attention span, deficits in executive function (the ability to make decisions based on short- and long-term planning), aphasia and language loss – even paralysis.
The neurological expertise of Kinetic Muscles Inc. and the Emory doctors identified two needs: can we make a form of therapy that fits existing clinical models and meets therapy standards, and that plays into the love our soldiers have for video games and their dynamic, engaging nature. Michael Eilers, Ken Adams and Justin Selgrad were recruited from UAT to design a proposal for game-based therapy software; in addition, a team composed of student interns and KMI employees were commissioned to create a functional prototype.
The initial proposal focused on an Xbox 360 game, developed with Microsoft’s XNA libraries and delivered via Xbox Live Arcade or Indie Arcade. At the time (2009) the Xbox 360 was the cheapest, most popular gaming platform to deliver an HD experience at home, and the ease of use of XNA and C# gave us a head start in creating 3D games compared to making a from-scratch engine. We have since moved to a Windows deployment of the game, due to the networking limitations of Xbox Live.
The core of the Making Mars project is a series of mini-games, each focused on a particular type of play and addressing a particular aspect of TBI injury related to executive function. These games function as both therapy tools and as diagnostic guides for the doctors and clinicians that are caring for these patients. The minigames are designed to challenge specific deficit areas and encourage players to stretch their abilities over time, adapting to their changing abilities in a scientifically sound way. As the players interact with the games, the games record huge amounts of realtime and event-driven data (metrics) that can then be examined by a physician and interpreted to observe changes in behavior and abilities over time.
The project has been through two rounds of funding, an initial grant and then a second grant awarded after a review of the progress and success of the prototype. Currently, the game is in testing with our clinical team at Emory using actual TBI patients through the VA Hospital in Atlanta. We hope to publish initial results of our testing by Summer 2012.