By Donald Bradley


KANSAS CITY, Mo.Bob Williams is a psychology professor who used to design games for his son to play.

Some were fun, but most were thinking games — mind games.

Alex was, it seems, a heady lad.

Later, when Alex was pulling a triple major at William Jewell College a block from the family home in Liberty, Mo., he joined his father in coming up with "Culture & Creed," a simulation game the two hoped would actually bring peace to the Middle East.

Right — a little tougher than getting players to come up with "Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick."

The ambitious project merited two articles in leading simulation journals. Still, the father-and-son team figured they had set the bar a tad high.

"I wasn't waiting for Washington to call," Alex said.

No, Washington didn't. But Alex's aunt did.

Kathy Christenson is a nurse practitioner at Children's Mercy Hospital. She had an idea.

Now, Bob and Alex Williams stand on the verge of a real life-or-death game.

It won't bring Middle East peace.

But doctors at Children's Mercy think it may help children with cystic fibrosis live longer.

Christenson had seen plenty of adolescents die over the years because they wouldn't stick to their treatment regimen for cystic fibrosis.

The chronic disease, which affects 30,000 in the U.S., causes lungs to clog with thick, sticky mucus and leads to life-threatening infections. There is no cure. It is vital that patients do therapy to keep the airways clear.

Young people know the risks, but many still cheat.

They won't do their breathing exercises.

They blow off taking medication.

They'll go out on Saturday night after being sick all week.

Research shows that more than 50 percent of adolescents do less therapy than they're supposed to, and 30 percent do none at all.

So three years ago, Christenson, who had long witnessed her brother-in-law's fascination with games and the human mind, asked Williams: "Can you come up with a game to improve compliance for kids with cystic fibrosis?"

Wow. That's a serious game.

But he was willing to try if she could give him enough information.

Williams, 58, who teaches at Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods, asked his son to help on the project.

Alex had always taken an interest in his father's games. He comes by it naturally. His mother, Sharon, is a psychologist, and his sister, Kali Young , teaches psychology in the North Kansas City School District.

And Bob knew Alex had a creative mind. When Alex was 5 or so, their walks around their historic Liberty neighborhood usually turned into story sessions about Spider-Man.

"I would start making up this story about Spider-Man, and then after a while I would tell Alex to take over," Bob remembered. "He looked at me funny the first time I did that, but he took the story to another level and then he would hand it back to me. We'd go back and forth like that."

But by the time of Christenson's challenge, Alex was nearing the end of his undergraduate studies in history, political science and psychology. Well past Spider-Man. Also, he was not exactly the age when sons yearn to commit to a long, grueling academic project with their fathers.

"If you start, you have to hang in there," Bob told him. "It will be hard."

Alex didn't hesitate.

"We've always had a good relationship, and now that I'm older we've taken that to more of an intellectual level," said Alex, who is now 23 and in the doctorate program in political science at the University of Kansas.

He received no pay or college credit for the project.

The two worked on the project about 20 hours a week while Bob taught full time and Alex was making straight A's in college.

During summers, they sometimes worked 10-hour days. They would huddle at the dining table and then go to separate rooms.

The key question was this: "If doing the respiratory exercises meant better health and longer life, then why won't kids do it?"

The answer, Bob said, was simple: "Because if you do it today, you won't feel better, and if you don't do it, you won't feel worse."

As with "Culture & Creed," the new game was based on something Bob Williams developed years ago called the multiple identification theory.

It states that a simulation game can influence attitude if a participant becomes personally and emotionally invested in the game's results.

In "My Life With CF," players live the life of a fictional character who has the disease. It starts with the character at age 11 making decisions about family, peer pressure, school, friends and, of course, treatment exercises.

Virtually anything that happens in real life can happen in the game. The players spend "effort points" to shape their character's life.

Last summer, testing began at Children's Mercy. Teens played the game under the tutelage of the Williams team and Christenson.

Changes were made. More testing. Parents watched. More changes. More testing.

Observing the entire progress was Phil Black , a doctor and director of the hospital's cystic fibrosis center. He had seen lots of earlier strategies, but nothing worked.

"This is exciting," Black said recently. "It's hard to measure some things like this, but we have seen kids change how they feel about their treatments. The game is fun and it's competitive. Like shooting asteroids, only it slips it in on them what this game is about — 'Are you going to the party? Or are you going to do your therapy first and then go to the party?'"

In feedback, two parents said: "Our sons are doing their treatments and we don't have to fight them anymore."

Older players said they wished they had played the game when they were younger.

Bob and Alex have appeared at medical conferences across the country to talk about their game. Maple Woods and William Jewell helped pay travel expenses.

This fall, Black hopes to tell a national conference of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation about the game that he thinks can extend the lives of teens.

Bob and Alex plan to attend, too. They are also thinking how the "My Life" concept can be switched out to other issues such as obesity, dangerous driving and substance abuse.

Meanwhile, they're hoping a corporation, such as a pharmaceutical company, comes along and markets "My Life With CF."

They would, though, like to dedicate the game to a girl at Children's Mercy.

She was dying and wanted to leave her organs behind for transplant. But she was told she couldn't because of her cystic fibrosis.

Shortly before she died, she cut her hair, thinking someone who had lost hair to cancer treatment would want it.

Bob and Alex Williams don't like that story. But unlike their old Spider-Man tales, they couldn't change the ending.

Maybe their new game can do that for someone else.