These creatures, called Clostridium difficile, are very difficult to kill. They grow toxic spores from their backs as one mean of reproduction. Occasionally, extended conflicts can lead to the creature striking an adversary with toxic megacolon. Photo courtesy of Nerdcore Learning

Doctors make game out of learning infection control

Two medical school buddies who bonded over geek culture have founded a gaming company aimed at medical students.

By — Posted April 26, 2010

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For Dr. Arun Mathews and Dr. Francis Kong, teaching medical students is as much about sorcerers and science fiction as it is about textbooks and rounds.

The two physicians are the founders of Nerdcore Learning, a gaming company geared toward creating study tools that combine two things they both enjoy: medical education and geek culture.

Nerdcore recently launched what it considers to be its signature product, "The Healing Blade." It is a role-playing card game that, like "Pokemon," "Yu-Gi-Oh" or "Magic: The Gathering," depicts sorcerers, creatures and heroines. But "The Healing Blade" teaches about infectious diseases. Nerdcore is developing an iPhone version of the game as well.

The two self-proclaimed "mega geeks" met while attending the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. It was there that a fellow gamer friend of Dr. Mathews told him he had to meet Dr. Kong, who had a campus reputation as being the ultimate gamer geek. Before entering medical school, Dr. Kong worked as a game reviewer in San Francisco. (Now he's back in that city as a health information technology consultant.)

Dr. Mathews recalled the first time he walked into Dr. Kong's dorm room. "He had like two or three [game] consoles in his room, and it was just like walking into geek heaven."

The two stayed in touch after medical school. When Dr. Mathews got the idea to launch a company that combined gaming with medical education, he called his old friend.

The doctors developed their first product, a mnemonic calendar for medical students to use as a learning tool, in October 2008. They then set out to create "The Healing Blade."

A table-top card battle game, "The Healing Blade" is built around a fantasy world, complete with sorcerers, villains and heroines that the two doctors created. Characters are divided into The Apothecary Healers, named after real-world antibiotics, and The Lords of Pestilence, named after actual bacterial agents.

Dr. Mathews, a hospitalist and intensivist in New Mexico, said the concept for the game came to him one night during ICU rounds.

"I was struck upon the complexity and yet innate nature of gaming within the choice I would make for putting some of my sick patients on particular antibiotics," he said. "Essentially, in a similar way, when you are playing a complex multi-tiered video game, we are making similar choices by obtaining data from our cultures [and] making risk-management decisions."

Nerdcore is working on another game that will use symptoms and signs to create sets that players use to identify ailments.

Dr. Mathews said Nerdcore's primary goal for games is to create fictitious worlds that people want to come back to and explore, much like BioWare has done. Both doctors are huge fans of that company, whose most popular titles are "Mass Effect" and "Mass Effect 2."

"That type of approach should be taken towards education, where if you want to sit down and learn about all the glorious things that occur in microbiology, you should be able to do that on many different levels," Dr. Mathews said.

"The Healing Blade," which retails for $24.99, is considered a "serious game," defined as a game that serves a purpose beyond entertainment.

It was launched at the American Medical Student Assn.'s annual meeting in March in Anaheim, Calif. Nerdcore planned to bring about 30 copies of the game to the meeting, but because of an ordering error by the printer, there were more than 100 copies.

It ended up being a fortunate mistake, as more than 90 were sold. But even that wasn't the highlight for Dr. Mathews.

At the end of the conference, while all the other booths on the exhibit floor were being broken down, "We had this gaggle of students just sitting down, spreading out on a bunch of tables, all playing the game. That is one memory that will take a while to fade, because it was such a neat thing to see students getting super excited about infectious disease and therapies," he said.

"They were just totally geeking out."

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It's infection vs. antibiotic in "The Healing Blade"

Common infections take on distinct personas in the fantasy world of physician-owned Nerdcore Learning's game, "The Healing Blade."

Here is how the card game works.

Players choose the side they want to represent in a fantasy battle between infectious disease, the Lords of Pestilence, and treatments, the Apothecary Healers.

Each Apothecary champion has a unique set of gifts and abilities. The Apothecaries also can turn into adversaries when real-world events such as resistance come into play.

The Lords of Pestilence have specific symptoms or drug resistances that must be considered as the Apothecary Healers design their battle strategy.

The cards each have an artistic interpretation of the characters as villains, creatures or vixens. They are used with the backdrop of a fantasy world depicted on two play mats.

The teams battle using real-world understanding of microbiology and common medical therapies for infectious disease to determine if the antibiotics are used properly to fight off the infectious diseases, or if the diseases will be victorious.

Also included are 30 special events cards, which include spells and real-life adverse effects that influence the battle.

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Social entrepreneurship at work

Dr. Arun Mathews and Dr. Francis Kong, the minds behind Nerdcore Learning, aren't using the business to make a profit. At least, not for themselves.

The two physicians are believers in a concept called social entrepreneurship, in which businesses are created for the purpose of raising money for causes the founders support, as well as using the business as a means of promoting a certain social principle.

In the case of Nerdcore Learning, that principle is medical education. Its signature product, a strategy card game called "The Healing Blade," is meant to be used as a tool to help medical students learn about infectious diseases.

The money Nerdcore raises by selling the game goes toward an organization Dr. Mathews created called HOPE, Hospital-based Online Pediatric Environment, which provides video game consoles to pediatric hospitals. (Dr. Mathews has written research articles on the effectiveness of the use of gaming by pediatric patients as a means to increase self-esteem and decrease isolation.) Other charities may be added.

Dr. Mathews said he first discovered social entrepreneurship when he heard a recorded lecture on the topic while driving his brother to the airport one day. He heard stories of how social entrepreneurs used their business acumen to help address societal problems and causes. Dr. Mathews said he was "mesmerized" by the idea of building a business that supported a larger cause.

At the time he heard that lecture, Dr. Mathews was struggling to obtain funding to get HOPE off the ground. He was working on developing a mnemonic calendar for medical students as a fundraiser when he decided to recruit Dr. Kong, a friend from medical school in Ireland, to create an educational publishing start-up company built around the social entrepreneur concept.

Both doctors make their living elsewhere -- Dr. Mathews as a hospitalist and intensivist in New Mexico, and Dr. Kong as a health information technology consultant in San Francisco.

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External links

Nerdcore Learning (link)

"Evaluating the Use of an Online Gaming Community in a Pediatric Hemodialysis Center," American Medical Informatics Assn. annual symposium proceedings, 2005 (link)

HOPE (Hospital-based Online Pediatric Environment), an online network that links pediatric inpatients around the country (link)

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