Roblox is hosting a game inside its virtual world platform to help raise awareness for Type 1 diabetes. The game, was made by Roblox developer MelonDev with medical research nonprofit JDRF, formerly known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The JDRF One World game is available today.
With more than 150 million users, Roblox is the No. 1 video game site for kids and teens. JDRF One World is part of a campaign from the game-focused charity JDRF Game2Give, organized in 2019 by prominent game developers who have children with type 1 diabetes. The effort is aimed at raising awareness and supporting work to find a cure for the disease, which strikes one in 400 children.
To visit JDRF One World, you need to set up a free Roblox account on your computer, phone, or tablet. Since the pandemic has nixed all in-person charity events, JDRF Game2Give has organized game bundles and charity streams. (It also has other campaigns in the pipeline.)
The game executives behind this project include former Telltale Games CEO Dan Connors, former Kongregate chief business officer Josh Larson, and Tilt Five COO Hans ten Cate. Larson is the director of JDRF Game2Give. I interviewed him and Connors about their experience having children with type 1 diabetes, and you’ll find their stories below.
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“Gaming has stretched across so many platforms,” Larson said in an interview with GamesBeat. “With COVID-19, gaming has been this avenue for people to connect. And connecting people that have the shared interests of gaming and also a personal connection to type 1 diabetes is really powerful. I am really impressed and proud of the games industry, as it has stepped up this year.”
One of the group’s goals is to educate people about the difficulties of dealing with the disease. More than 1.6 million Americans have Type 1 diabetes, and 38 million adults and children worldwide. Although people can make lifestyle changes to help manage the disease, there is no cure at this time.
Inside the world of Roblox
The launch is timed for the start of National Diabetes Awareness Month, and Roblox’s huge reach can help bring attention to the cause.
“We are inspired by how JDRF is reimagining its One Walk inside the Roblox metaverse, bringing people from around the world together to support such a worthy cause,” Roblox VP Tami Bhaumik said in an email to GamesBeat. “We’ve been humbled by how the Roblox platform can support those in need and will continue to look for ways to provide an opportunity for the community to come together to give back.”
JDRF kicked off the project with developer MelonDev about six weeks ago. There’s a JDRF One Walk experience that lets you walk inside the virtual world. The developers also created a bunch of minigames, including a maze, a race, trivia about diabetes, a parkour course, tug-of-war, and a scavenger hunt. Each minigame can be played with one to five players.
Prizes include JDRF shirts, hats, capes, glasses, and the Rufus bear. The mascot bear is also given out to kids who have been newly diagnosed. The group spends nearly $200 million a year on diabetes research and has challenged its community to walk 1.6 million miles and raise $50 million to find a cure. Other games, including World Golf Tour, have also helped fund research.
JDRF CEO Aaron Kowalski will be on hand inside the Roblox world to greet people. Both Connors and Larson said advances in continuous glucose monitors, like the Dexcom G6, have made life easier. I tried that glucose monitor, which is a critical piece of equipment for those with diabetes, so I could see the impact my diet has on my blood sugar. I found it deeply informative.
While I appreciated what I learned from the monitor, people with diabetes rely on it for life-or-death decisions in the day-to-day management of their health. With diabetes, the body loses its ability to produce insulin, a hormone normally produced by the pancreas to remove sugar from a person’s blood. Untreated, type 1 diabetes can result in organ damage, coma, or even death.
The newest glucose monitors, which check the sugar level in your blood at any given moment, can be attached to your body and aren’t as cumbersome as they used to be. They can be connected to insulin pumps, with apps that monitor your blood sugar level, and deliver life-saving insulin if needed. Without this kind of technology, calculating how much insulin to inject into a patient’s body has been a guessing game that involves hourly monitoring.
With the automated connection between the glucose monitors and insulin pumps, parents of children with type 1 diabetes can sleep through the night, Connors said, which is a game-changer for families.
Dan Connors’ story
Connors realized his son had a health condition around the boy’s 5th birthday. His son had symptoms like frequent urination, as his body wasn’t processing sugar and was trying to get it out of his system. The family took him to the doctor and learned, after tests, that he had Type 1 diabetes. It was a shock to discover how much care his son would need for the rest of his life, but that burden was eased by support the family received from the medical community and organizations like JDRF.
“It’s definitely one of those clubs you don’t want to be in, but once you’re in, you realize how great people are,” Connors said.
Parents of kids who have been diagnosed realize they have to become like an artificial pancreas for their child, he said. The parents are responsible for making sure their child gets insulin, which means doing the math regularly and keeping track of all of the variables. The goal is to keep the child’s blood sugar in a safe range, and it’s a constant job.
“There’s always that life-or-death element to it that adds an extra level of pressure,” Connors said.
Now his son is 12. He has a Dexcom G6 glucose monitor and an insulin pump. This year, the company was finally able to make that into a closed-loop system, where the delivery of insulin is automated.
“The tech is really helpful. Treatment changed dramatically,” Connors said. “Now the pump talks to the monitor.”
Connors said it can be hard for parents to give up the responsibility of monitoring their kids and administering insulin. But the kids have to learn how to manage the condition themselves.
“You know there is so much at stake, but you have to give up some of it,” Connors said. “If you don’t manage diabetes, it wreaks havoc on your life. My son has to learn it, and the tools for him to learn it are always improving.”
Connors and Hans ten Cate teamed up as volunteers to try to raise money through games. As early as 2017, they created Humble Bundle packages of games to raise money for JDRF. As they went public with their children’s stories, they learned people they worked with had type 1 diabetes.
“There’s a lot going on between games and charity right now,” Connors said. “We thought about the best way for JDRF to approach the game industry. We worked with Twitch streamers. We met with companies to talk about the way games can support charities.”
Connors is encouraged by progress toward finding a cure, but there isn’t one yet. That’s why he wants to raise public awareness about not just managing the disease but the need to do more research. He said it has been especially tough to get the word out during the pandemic.
“That’s why this Roblox thing is really exciting,” Connors said.
Josh Larson’s story
Larson’s daughter is 9, and she was diagnosed three years ago. The family was alerted to the problem because she had excessive thirst and had to go to the bathroom a lot, even at night.
“We had that parents’ intuition like, you know, there’s something that’s a little off about this,” Larson said. “We canceled a trip, visited the doctor, and right away they sent us to UCSF. It was overwhelming on the first day. We received this Rufus Teddy Bear. JDRF was there with key resources. They enable a lot of technology in treating the disease.”
Larson compared the pressure of managing the disease to playing one of the most difficult games.
“It’s like a high-stakes, very complicated version of Flappy Bird, where you’re trying to stay in range and not have the blood sugar go too high or too low.”
Fortunately, the family had good health insurance and embraced the available technology. Today, they have a Dexcom G6 glucose monitor and an Omnipod insulin pump. Like Connors, they no longer have to do finger pricks to calibrate the monitor, and an algorithm keeps their daughter alive. Now they only need to wake up to an alarm once every 10 nights or so, instead of every night. The adults still have to supervise, but their daughter can read her blood sugar numbers by looking at an Apple Watch.
Larson is grateful for the technology, but he hopes researchers will find a cure, which is why he believes supporting JDRF is so important. And while the kids and their families can’t go on fundraising walks during the pandemic, they can at least experience a sense of community inside Roblox.
When I wore the glucose monitor, I got a sense of living with this kind of device and how tough it must be for the families involved. Hopefully, JDRF and others will find a cure one day.
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