The "Liquid Gold" Crisis
Plasma, often dubbed "liquid gold," is a silent hero in the medical world. It forms the basis of life-saving treatments for countless patients who need treatments including, but not limited to, immunotherapies, clotting factor treatments for hemophilia, and critical care for burn victims. Despite its crucial role, Europe is grappling with a severe plasma shortage. While countries like Austria and Germany have systems that meet their local needs, the overall European network falls short. The Netherlands exemplifies this dilemma, facing a two-fold challenge: rising demand and constrained domestic supply. As a result, the country is forced into a vulnerable position where it relies heavily on plasma imports—most of which come from the United States. This isn't merely a logistical hurdle; it represents a severe public health crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted this vulnerability by severely impacting the supply chain for plasma products in Europe and exposing the risks of external dependence on such a critical resource. Addressing this urgent and complex issue requires more than just short-term fixes aimed at boosting donor numbers. A comprehensive, long-term strategy is essential to ensure a stable and sufficient pool of plasma donors, thereby creating a more robust supply chain for plasma-based therapies.
The Awareness Gap
Numerous studies identify lack of awareness, not scarcity of donors, as the real barrier to plasma donation. Simply put, people can't donate what they're unaware of. The situation becomes particularly complex in the Netherlands. With a mere 2.5% of the general population participating in blood donation, the likelihood of encountering someone—a family member, friend, or colleague—who can inform you about the importance of plasma donation is low. Don't look to the educational system for help; current curricula don't mandate this topic. As a result, conversations about plasma donation are usually absent from classrooms, dinner tables, and casual coffee chats, leaving the community largely uninformed about its critical importance.
The Game Changer
To address the lack of awareness surrounding plasma donation, we opted for an unconventional approach that transcends traditional public health campaigns. We developed a 'serious game' specifically targeted at educating children and teenagers about the importance of plasma donation. Compared to ‘normal’ video games, 'serious games' serve as educational tools rather than sources of pure entertainment. Our intent was not to glamorize plasma donation or influence the attitudes of young players toward it. Instead, we aimed to enhance their understanding of the subject.
How does our game accomplish this? Players are presented with the real-life stories of Kristen, Oliver, and Jethero. The primary task? Secure enough plasma donors—and quickly. While this may sound straightforward, the game is engineered to be challenging. The struggle players experience is not incidental but intentional, mirroring the actual difficulties faced in recruiting sufficient plasma donors in real life. Through this firsthand experience, players not only confront but also gain a deeper appreciation of the importance and challenges associated with plasma Photo by Julia M Cameron donation, including donor shortages.
From the Laboratory to the Museum
We tested the game through the NEMO Science Live program, a unique initiative at the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam that enables researchers to involve visitors in scientific experiments. Our setup was on the first floor, in a room featuring a long table equipped with 5 tablets and headphones for children and adolescents, aged 8-17, to play the game. A screen at the front of the room announced our activity. Although some participants joined voluntarily, we actively went around the floor and invited children and their parents to partake in our research. We were hoping for at least 470 players to make sure our results would be solid. But guess what? We ended up with 744 kids giving the game a try! (Inviting pamflets of NEMO science Live)
Interestingly, the game's appeal extended to adults as well. For example, we had an elderly couple from England who joined in to play the game and asked us many questions about plasma donation.
(Alexandra at the entrance to the NEMO Science Live room)
How about the player reviews? The feedback was varied; some children loved the game, while others found it too challenging or dull. Regardless of their initial impressions, many expressed appreciation for the educational value of the game. Preliminary analysis goes even further, showing the game actually boosted knowledge levels about plasma donation
significantly. And the cherry on top? Several kids said they'd consider becoming donors someday.
Some of the children's answers:
As I emphasized in the beginning, one of the main barriers to becoming a donor is simply a lack of awareness. Given the scarcity of educational environments and opportunities devoted to this issue, it's reasonable to suspect that this lack of awareness has systemic roots. Our initial findings suggest that serious games could serve as powerful tools to combat this systemic problem, effectively increasing understanding and knowledge about the importance of plasma donation. Moreover, in places like museums, these games have the potential to do more than just educate individuals; they can also catalyze meaningful conversations between parents and children about the subject—conversations that might not have occurred otherwise. We need to broaden our thinking and take a long-term view when it comes to devising strategies that ensure a sufficient donor pool and a robust plasma supply chain.