Roblox has launched a game inside its virtual world platform that will help raise awareness about Type 1 diabetes in a partnership with medical research nonprofit JDRF, once known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

The JDRF One World game is available today inside Roblox, which is the No. 1 video game site for kids and teens, with more than 150 million users. The world is part of a campaign by the game-focused charity JDRF Game2Give, organized in 2019 by prominent game developers who have children with diabetes. The whole effort is a labor of love to help people understand diabetes and how they can help 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, charity streams, with other campaigns in the works.

It’s the work of game executives with children who have Type-1 diabetes, including former Telltale Games CEO Dan Connors, former Kongregate chief business officer Josh Larson, and Hans ten Cate, chief operating officer at Tilt Five. Larson is the director of JDRF Game2Give. I interviewed him and Connors about their experience having children with the disease, and you’ll see their stories below.

“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 their goals is to educate people about how difficult it is to deal with the disease. All told, more than 1.6 million Americans have Type 1 diabetes, for which there is no cure. Worldwide, 38 million adults and children have the disease.

Inside the world of Roblox

Above: JDRF CEO Aaron Kowalski inside Roblox

Image Credit: Roblox

With its huge reach, Roblox can help bring attention to the cause, and the event is timed for the start of National Diabetes Awareness Month.

“We are inspired by how JDRF is re-imagining its One Walk inside the Roblox metaverse, bringing people from around the world together to support such a worthy cause,” said Tami Bhaumik, vice president of marketing and digital civility for Roblox, 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 is working with a developer named MelonDev and work started on the project about six weeks ago. There’s a JDRF One Walk experience where you can walk inside the virtual world. The developers created a bunch of minigames, such as a maze, a race, trivia about diabetes, a parkour course, tug of war, and a scavenger hunt. Each minigame requires two players and can accept up to five players.

The prizes include JDRF shirts, hats, capes, glasses, and a Rufus bear. Rufus is JDRF’s mascot and is given out to kids when they’re newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. JDRF has challenged its community to walk 1.6 million miles and raise $50 million to find a cure. Other games such as World Golf Tour have also helped.

Aaron Kowalski, CEO of JDRF (which spends nearly $200 million a year on diabetes research), will be on hand inside the Roblox world to greet people. Both Connors and Larson said that advances in continuous glucose monitors such as the Dexcom G6. I tried that glucose monitor, which is a critical piece of equipment as it measures blood sugar levels in patients, so that I could appreciate the impact that my diet has on my blood sugar, and it was deeply informative for me.

While I appreciated what I learned from the monitor, diabetes patients rely on it for life-or-death decisions in the day-to-day management of their health. In such patients, the body loses its ability to produce insulin, a hormone produced by your pancreas that removes sugar from your blood. Untreated, it can result in organ damage, coma, or even death.

The newest glucose monitors, which check your sugar level in your blood at any given moment, can be attached to the body and aren’t as cumbersome as they were in the past. They can also be connected to insulin pumps, and with apps that monitor the level of blood sugar, the pumps can deliver life-saving insulin into the body. In the past, calculating how much insulin to inject into a patient’s boy has been a guessing game that involved hourly monitoring and guesswork.

But with the automated connection between the glucose monitors and insulin pumps, parents of children with Type 1 diabetes can manage to sleep through the night, Connors said. That’s a game changer, at least in terms of being able to manage the disease.

Dan Connors’ story

Above: Dan Connors, cofounder of Telltale Games, at Gamelab in Barcelona in 2016.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Connors realized that his son wasn’t healthy around the time of his boy’s fifth birthday. The boy had symptoms like frequent urination, as the body isn’t processing sugar and is trying to get it out of the system. They took him to the doctor and learned, after tests, that he had Type 1 diabetes. It was a shock to discover how much care would be required for the rest of their son’s life, but that burden was eased by the support that they 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.

The parents, he said, realize that they have to become like an artificial pancreas for the child. They’re responsible for making sure that he gets insulin. They had to do the math regularly and take into account all of the variables. The goal is to keep the blood sugar in a safe range. It’s a constant job for the parents.

“There’s always that life or death element to it that adds an extra level of pressure,” Connors said. ”

Now the boy is 12. He has a Dexcom G6 glucose monitor and an insulin pump. This year, they were 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.”

Cheerleaders inside the JDRF One World experience in Roblox.

Above: Cheerleaders inside the JDRF One World experience in Roblox.

Image Credit: Roblox

Connors said the parents have a hard time giving up the responsibility of taking care and monitoring. But their boy has to learn how to do it himself.

“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 banded together as volunteers to try to raise money through games. As early as 2017 or so, they were creating Humble Bundle packages of games to raise money for JDRF. As they went public about their children, they learned people they worked with had Type 1 diabetes but never talked about it.

“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 at the progress in understanding the disease and finding a cure. But there isn’t one yet. That’s why he wants to keep public awareness high about the need to do more research. He said it has been hard to get the word out during the pandemic.

“That’s why this Roblox thing is really exciting,” Connors said.

Josh Larson’s story

Above: This is the kind of data that diabetes patients have to monitor on an hourly or daily basis.

Image Credit: Tidepool

Larson’s daughter is nine, and she was diagnosed three years ago. The family discovered it when she had an excessive thirst and was always drinking water 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.”

Trying to convey what it was like, Larson compared it to 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.”

Above: Part of the JDRF One World experience inside Roblox.

Image Credit: Roblox

Fortunately, the family had good health insurance and embraced the 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 the daughter can read her blood sugar numbers by looking at an Apple Watch.

Larson is grateful for the technology, but he hopes they’ll find a cure, and that’s why supporting JDRF is so important, he said. While the kids and families can’t go on walks anymore for fundraising, they can at least experience a sense of community inside Roblox.

When I wore the glucose monitor, I got a sense for what living with this kind of device is like. And how much presence of mind you have to dedicate to it, and it struck me at how tough this is for the families involved. Hopefully, JDRF and others will find a cure one day.

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