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Cancer Ghost Hunters game helps children of sick parent deal with emotions

    Wednesday 9 February 2022
Home(opens in new tab) / Cancer Ghost Hunters game helps children of sick parent deal with emotions

As a parent with cancer, how can you teach your child to deal with all their resulting emotions and questions? Joyce (48) saw the solution in a dream: a game. Her daughter Dana made her dream come true. She was given the opportunity to develop the Serious Game 'Cancer Ghost Hunters' together with fellow students at 038Games.

It’s not easy to talk about cancer when this disease is suddenly part of a family's reality. Joyce (48) also experienced this when she heard that she had an incurable type of cancer. She was able to talk about it with her daughter Dana (22), but found it a lot harder to explain to her four-year-old son what was going on with his mother.

‘I showed my son videos about cancer treatment, about radiotherapy and chemo. He wanted to see those videos no less than 30 times a day, to understand them as best he could. But it was still difficult for a four-year-old to understand. And in the explanatory videos, the parent nearly always gets better. My treatment is only life-prolonging. How do you explain that? What's more, Joyce could hardly find any tools to help her son deal with the emotions this causes.

The idea leading up to 'Cancer Ghost Hunters’

Joyce and her daughter Dana share a passion for gaming and regularly get together at the console. When Joyce was sleeping beside Dana after a gaming session, her hobby and her illness came together. ‘I saw a family in a house you could walk through. You could have a conversation with each family member, see their sadness and learn about the disease and your own emotions as a player of games.' Joyce told Dana enthusiastically about her dream. 'How nice it would be if he learned about the disease while playing. Interactively, like in a game.'

An avid gamer, Dana is pursuing her passion in her Game Designer studies at the Graphic Art School in Utrecht, where she focuses on design. As a game lover, the choice to do her internship at HBO-ICT's 038Games was easily made. Here, she can work with a multidisciplinary student team on a Serious Game that contributes to a social issue.

In her introductory meeting with Teun Lucassen, HBO-ICT lecturer and coach at 038Games, Dana shared her mother's idea for a game. It appealed greatly to Lucassen. He cautiously suggested to Dana that she should actually work it out at 038Games. ‘I was wondering whether it wouldn't get too close,' Lucassen explains. But Dana and her mother are completely behind it. ‘It's part of life. And we know from experience how important it is.'

A solution to a problem

Dana suggested involving the Sadness On Your Mind Foundation in the project. They offer help to children who have a parent with cancer. Their site, in new tab), contains a lot of explanation using animations, text and pictures, but an interactive element like a game is still missing. Lucassen says: ‘Normally clients contact us. We have previously designed Serious Games for the police, the fire brigade and the healthcare sector. They bring in a problem, and students come up with a solution. This time it was exactly the other way round. We had a solution to a problem and were looking for a suitable party to offer this solution to.’

The foundation was very enthusiastic about the proposal. ‘We’re always looking for new ways to keep in touch with our target group. A game is an attractive way to convey information to children of primary school age,' explains Bernard Neuhaus of the foundation. He sees the collaboration with students as a valuable opportunity. ‘They are closer to the target group in terms of age and they have a good feel for their world view'.

The power of collaboration

HBO-ICT is the basis of 038Games. 'However', Lucassen adds, 'this kind of project has to be multidisciplinary. You can't do this with IT people alone. You also need designers, for example, and there aren't any at Windesheim. That's why we started looking for schools offering this kind of programme, at both higher professional (hbo) and intermediate vocational (mbo) level. To justify this special collaboration, 038Games has become an official internship company, where mbo students can do their internship and hbo students can do a minor or an elective semester.

The students taking part in 038Games sign up for projects that appeal to them the most. 'The students who work on Cancer Ghost Hunters make a conscious choice to do so, and that can only be encouraged', Lucassen emphasizes. The group members bring a wealth of personal experiences as inspiration for this project.

From left to right: Mychael, Dana, Beau, Zoë, Anwar and Teun

Life lessons for a new generation

In the photo, the down-to-earth but also proud group of students are sitting side by side on a bench in their familiar workplace at the Hanzeplein, near Zwolle railway station. To Dana's left is Mychael (19). He is an HBO-ICT student in Almere and is involved in the technical development of the game together with his classmate Anwar. When he was about six years old, his mother got cancer. ‘At that time, I didn't know exactly what was going on. I knew that something was wrong, but I just didn't understand it very well. With this app, I want to help make cancer easier to understand for children who are in the same situation now as I was back then.’

Beau (20) is in Dana's class at the Graphic Art School. Together they make the illustrations for Cancer Ghost Hunters: 'It’s particularly important that children receive proper guidance. Otherwise they can repress unprocessed emotions in an unhealthy way. These emotions will eventually surface again, one way or another. Beau has seen this happen with her own eyes: 'I was in a clinic for problem kids. I met many peers there who had lost parents to cancer. They turned to drugs or other unhealthy distractions. Maybe they wouldn't have been there if they had been given better help in the past. I thought it would be nice to incorporate the lessons I learned there, including how to deal with emotions, into the game.’

Anwar (24) and Zoë (22) complete the group. They have no personal experiences with the disease, but signed up for this project because they want to make a difference. Anwar is a student of the same programme as Mychael and focuses on the technical aspects of the game. Zoë studies HBO-ICT in Zwolle. She’s the group manager and makes the music and other sound effects for the game. 'I try to give a nice sound to the emotions in the game. This is quite a challenge, especially in a mini-game in which the emotions go from angry to happy. Teun helped me a lot with this. He also plays in bands as a keyboard player.’

The game

Cancer Ghost Hunters is a so-called point & click adventure game, in which you play mini-games. These all take place in a house, where the player learns to deal with his own emotions. Later, locations like school and hospital are to follow. At the hospital, the player learns more about the disease itself. 

In the beginning, you start a conversation with a parent. He or she asks you how you feel. Then you start a mini-game based on your stated emotion.

For example, if you’re sad, you can make a chain of your tears. Then you give each of those tears its own colour. This way your sadness is slowly transformed into something beautiful, a colourful bead necklace.

You can also see an angry "blob". The blob symbolizes the fear you can experience as a child. Giving the creature attention (depicted in the game with water and magic dust) makes it happy and flowers start to grow from it. Then you put the blob in a jar. So you learn to give your feelings a place, both literally and figuratively.

During the creative process, the students regularly speak with the foundation Sadness On Your Mind. They manage expectations and make use of the expertise that the foundation has to offer. Psychologist Nel Kleverlaan, who is also the foundation's chair, gives tips on the science behind emotions and illustrator Ien van Laanen, who has previously designed the foundation's mascots, looks over the work of Dana and Beau.

The mascots are a blue and pink ball called Jess and Josie, who use their fists to knock out the 'cancer ghosts'. This fact inspired the game, in which they help the player on their way.

Expertise based on experience

Joyce meets with the students regularly and, as an expert from personal experience, helps with the development of the game. Her experience with the disease and the talks she had with her youngest child have taught her what the opportunities and pitfalls are. ‘It’s quite common that you can win or lose as a player of a game. I asked the students to pay close attention to this in Cancer Ghost Hunters. The last thing you want is for your child to unconsciously think that they can influence the course of the disease through the game.’

Dana's little brother is the first test subject, although he is a little younger than the actual target group. He doesn't quite understand some of the games yet, but he does react strongly to a mini-game in which you can vent your frustration by hitting a pillow. 'He reacted very fanatically and almost smashed the screen, so maybe we should change the tapping into swiping', says Beau. ‘At a later stage we will test the game at primary schools to get a better idea of the reaction of children in the target age group.’

The future

For this group of students, the elective semester has come to an end, but a new group of students is taking over. This happens more often when there is a good follow-up question for further development. 'Twenty weeks may be a long time for education, but for game development it’s of course limited', Lucassen explains. Whether the group of students have also become friends? ‘By now they have all added each other on Discord. That's the best you can do for ICT people', Zoë jokes.

Joyce is now in the last phase of her life. This is hard for her and for Dana, but the project has given both of them the opportunity to use their experiences with the disease for something positive. Joyce has played the game extensively and is immensely proud that her dream is gradually coming true. ‘I hope the game will teach children who don't know what to do with their sadness that it is okay to cry or be angry. That they learn to admit and deal with their emotions. It would be wonderful if the app could be embraced by hospitals in the future, for example.’


  • Curious about the game Cancer Ghost Hunters? The beta version is now available for downloading in the playstore(opens in new tab).
  • Do you have any questions about the project or would you like to contribute? Please get in touch with Teun Lucassen(opens in new tab).
  • Would you like more information about helping children with a parent who has cancer? Then take a look at the website of the Foundation Sadness On Your Mind,
  • 038Games(opens in new tab) is an initiative of Windesheim University of Applied Sciences in Zwolle. 038games is the working name of the Game Studio minor, part of the Windesheim's HBO-ICT programme.


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