A screen shot of Wizdy Pet’s dragon ready to take his inhaler.

Education, especially for younger children, is all about the gamification of learning. Any school subject – from colonial history to economics – can be made into an entertaining yet educational game for kids.

So what about when there’s more on the line than just grades, like children’s health and well-being? Take, for instance, the boring medical information that kids with asthma or severe allergies need to learn so they can take care of their conditions and don’t compromise their lives. The Oregon Trail won’t be helping them in that respect.

Picking up on the need for amusing games focused on teaching children about their own health, local startup Wizdy has already launched its first app geared toward kids with asthma called Wizdy Pets. The venture, whose co-founders have ties to Boston University, Tufts and Harvard Medical School, was just accepted this semester to work out of the Harvard iLab and it plans to show that games will be the key to equipping kids with knowledge about how to care for their well-being one app at a time.

Why make a game about asthma?

Wizdy Pets, which costs $0.99, takes a virtual pet approach to asthma education. Young users have to care for a dragon. But not just any kind of dragon. This little guy has asthma and can’t breathe fire unless his condition is kept under control. So kids have to make sure their dragon gets extra TLC to combat its asthma, which teaches them how to care for their own asthma.

Nikita Virani, co-founder and CEO of Wizdy, explained that the startup’s team had been working on this first app for a while, using the seed money from its angel investors that it secured in the winter of 2014. Now, they’re doubling down once again to develop a second Wizdy app, which will focus on food allergies and will be a completely different game experience so users don’t get bored, that they plan to launch in the spring.

But what got Wizdy up and running in the first place?

Nikita Virani, Wizdy Co-Founder and CEO.

“We came up with idea through combinations of passion, personal experience and some exciting studies we found in the area,” Virani said. “Sean {Chung, another co-founder,} was an avid gamer as a kid and was always a big believer in gaming as a tool to learn things and not just for fun…So it’s been his personal mission for his life to prove this.

What’s her personal connection? She explained, “I’ve always been interested in population health and how we can improve outcomes on a global scale. For me, it was more about how I could change children’s day-to-day behaviors because that accounts for our well being more so than our medical and health care.”

Add to that initial passion the fact that each of Wizdy’s co-founders had friends and colleagues who suffered from asthma and other common, treatable conditions. And for Virani, she can pinpoint the exact moment when she realized the gravity of an asthma attack – something that many people don’t comprehend until they experience or witness one.

Wizdy Co-Founder Sean Chung.

She told me, “I personally remember a time when I was a cross-country runner in high school and we were running in the GMC national race and when I was maybe less than a half-mile away from the finish line, the race stopped all of a sudden and I heard that someone had had an asthma attack.”

“We were waiting out in the middle of this field somewhere for an ambulance taking this poor girl to the hospital. We had no idea what was going on and if she’d be OK and it just changed the entire day for everyone. It changed my perspective on how quickly your life can just flash before you.”

Training health behavior when they’re young

The Wizdy team was further inspired to embark on this startup journey by the game Re-Mission, which was created by HopeLab and helps cancer patients understand what they were going through and why. In a study, this game was shown to improve not only the understanding, but also the outcomes of cancer patients. Taking a look at those results, Wizdy knew there was an opportunity to take the same philosophy and apply it to children’s health.

“I think that if you can do that with cancer, that’s incredibly powerful,” Virani expressed. “Why can’t you do it with so many other conditions and why can’t you do it on mobile, where children are spending most of their time nowadays? And no one else was doing that, so I was excited to be the first one to do it.”

Designed for kids aged 6 to 11, a time in children’s lives when they are developing behaviors they will keep for the rest of their lives, Wizdy Pets will help them learn how to manage their asthma. And the startup received guidance as to what that may entail from experts at a couple of Boston’s most respected institutions of health.

“The things that we’re teaching the kids are the three most important things that our advisors from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital have designed for us educationally,” Virani said. “So those things would be inhaler technique and timing. So how often are you taking inhaler and how do you take it…It’s incredibly hard to memorize that when you’re a child.”

However, if children are unknowingly and repeatedly presented with this crucial information in an engaging game, they are more likely to remember it. The know-how basically becomes ingrained in their minds through play.

In addition to those two inhaler-centric concepts, Wizy Pets addresses asthma trigger recognition. Through two mini-games within the app, children will learn what triggers an asthma attack and what they should do in those situations.

Virani explained, “It teaches them how to recognize symptoms that may be a sign of an asthma attack might come – coughing, wheezing, choking – and what actions to take that is happening. So the fact that when that’s happening, you use your medication, but you use your rescue inhaler and emergency inhaler – not the one that you’re taking every day. There’s a difference between the two. All of this weaved into a game.”

Which conditions are next?

Looking ahead, the company hopes to work on additional games that will teach children about proper nutrition. But it’s not all about ailments. Virani was sure to emphasize that, even though Wizdy’s first couple of games will be geared toward certain conditions, their apps are about general well-being and can be enjoyed by any and all kids.

“What was very exciting for us is that after we launched, we were featured in Apple’s Best New Apps and Games section of the App Store,” she shared. “I think that showed us some validation that this is a fun game and not just an app for sick kids. To me that was very important because fun is the number-one goal.”

Images via Nikita Virani.