Minecraft Teaches Kids Type 1 Diabetes


Editor’s Note: Want to help fund this incredibly inventive tech project to help kinds learn about Type 1 Diabetes, visit here.

When a child is diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, not only is he or she faced with learning new complicated self-care, but they’re also tasked with explaining what it means to have the chronic illness to peers and their community. This often proves to be a challenge and when communication fails, a child can feel even more isolated. Imagine though a way in which a child could teach Type 1 to his or her peers that doesn’t include clinical explanations but rather a hands on experience, an opportunity to walk in the newly diagnosed child’s shoes. More, what if it were a game, a virtual world in which the peer group was already familiar operating.

Meet the man who designed it — Brisbane native Joshua Wulf, a software engineer who worked for Red Hat, the world’s first billion-dollar open-source software company. He’s been programming since he was 10 years old; he’s also the father to a son who was diagnosed at age 8. He tells Beyond Type 1 that he stumbled into teaching kids code because he wanted to teach his own son, but the kids were restless after school and didn’t want to sit through another lesson. “I saw that the kids loved Minecraft [a world-building video game] where they learned long codes to be able to do things and got to collaborate and compete with other children. It’s like a sand pit with Lego blocks inside a computer,” says Wulf. “The kids were already motivated to play the game, so I wondered if we could incorporate learning with it, so we found a way to make modified versions of the game.”

“At the time, Wulf explains, “I was also taking a three-month course focused on how to mobilize one community to benefit another community. My coach said he was going through IVF treatment and noticed there was a lot of support for women but none for their partners and so he created a support system uniquely for them. I could see then what was happening to my son and other children across the world that were trying to explain Type 1 diabetes to others. Because it was so difficult to translate, he was missing out on having a community of support around him. We have a whole system to educate the family and child in the clinic, but what is there to do about educating the people around that child and family?”

Wulf says he witnessed countless times, his son’s friends not understanding the management of Type 1, even though they cared about his son and wanted to know. “The aggregate affect of dozens of people not understanding can be upsetting,” says Wulf. “My son said to me, ‘I didn’t sign up to have Type 1 and I sure as hell didn’t sign up to be a Type 1 diabetes educator.’”

I thought, ‘what difference it could make if a player had Type 1 in Minecraft. The newly diagnosed child could play in the hospital to learn about it and later [his or her] entire class could play to understand the affects of insulin on blood glucose levels and how carbohydrates metabolize into glucose.”

So Wulf built the new version of the game that included a character with Type 1. This character is endowed with magical abilities — like striking a snowboard on the ground can kill zombies and spiders.

“When the player’s blood glucose goes out of range, they will be warned and get dizzy. If it goes further out of range, they’ll go blind or have extreme instability and lose their magical powers. So we teach them what the ill effects of hypo- or hyperglycemic and how to treat it,” says Wulf. “It’s like playing regular Minecraft but harder — kind of like what it means to have Type 1 diabetes. My son can eat anything or do anything else his peer’s do, but he has to do all these other tasks to enjoy something that a child without T1D doesn’t think twice about.”

Wulf’s version of Minecraft focuses on three important take-aways: understanding blood glucose levels, carbohydrate intake and insulin intake. “We want the kids to learn that taking foods causes the blood glucose to go up and taking insulin causes it to go down,” he says. “We also want them to know that there’s a lag in both — digestion and insulin intake. So we give the player a continuous blood glucouse monitor.”

Luckily, a day in Minecraft is really 20 minutes in real-time, so it’s an accelerated experience and they can accelerate the metabolism. Wulf and his team ran a community trial for the game and the results were astounding. “They loved it,” says Wulf. “They were really getting it — ‘if I don’t eat something to bring up my blood sugar, I will lose my powers. And if I don’t take this magic potion of insulin, I could lose them.’”

Wulf’s son is now 15 years old, and has since moved on to other types of video games, but the need to help newly diagnosed kids is still apparent for the software engineer. “I saw that the problem is deeply personal but not uniquely personal — there are so many kids who experience the frustration of explaining this to others. It has already made a difference for a lot of people. We can’t let another child go home from the hospital without the tools to have that conversation with their community and get that support around them. We can empower children to have that conversation now.”

Wulf and his team are still looking for funding to complete the project which entitles engineering and distribution to families in hospitals dealing with a new diagnosis of Type 1. Find out how you can help make this project possible and get the game into the hands of kids who need it most by visiting here. Fundraising closes January 5, 2018!

Check out the MCT1 version of the game here!

WRITTEN BY Michelle Boise, POSTED 12/21/17, UPDATED 12/22/17

With an MFA in Writing from the University of San Francisco, Michelle believes in the power of words and looks for the human quality behind every story. She’s a writer, editor and content guru, having worked on both literary magazines and e-commerce platforms. Before joining the Beyond Type 1 team, she developed health-conscious articles for Fitbit.