Video Games Are Reshaping How We Think About Life After Earth
In orbit, the human body changes in unexpected ways
All astronauts must go through rigorous medical training to prepare for space. They need to know that, say, if a fellow astronaut experiences chest pains on a spaceship en route to Mars, a crew member must ultrasound their heart — which will look oddly spherical compared to a heart on Earth. NASA’s medical training, however, is complicated by the very limited data on astronaut health. Only a few hundred people have ever been to space, and even fewer have been on long-duration flights. To prepare astronauts for completely new medical scenarios they might encounter while in orbit, NASA is turning to video games.
The space agency’s Human Research Program, together with an academic consortium called the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, partnered with the medical video game company Level Ex in August 2019 to provide simulated training for the human spaceflight program. The initial grant, which will provide an undisclosed amount of funding for 12 months, will help Level Ex develop a training framework for all active astronauts. Level Ex’s existing phone-based games for doctors and nurses, like Pulm Ex (for pulmonologists) and Airway Ex (for anesthesiologists), are first-person shooter-style games that realistically simulate the interior of the human body and are based on real case studies. Players enter parts of the body, such as intestines and blood vessels, to perform tasks like eliminating growths, suctioning mucus, and managing bleeding.
Level Ex’s high-fidelity simulations will depict how it feels to operate on a real person in space, where bodies function differently because of microgravity: Hearts change shape, organs shift around, bladders act strangely, and some medical risks increase. Simulating the communication delay between Earth and space — one second between Mission Control in Houston and the ISS, or up to 40 minutes between Earth and Mars — adds an element of time pressure to the game meant to mimic the urgency of real-life space medicine. While these simulations aren’t meant to replace current medical training, they can act as a supplement and refresher for crewmembers who are already in space or for future astronauts.