Cancer Research GameJam

This time last weekend, I was furiously arranging pixels in the name of battling cancer. This is because I participated in Cancer Research UK‘s ground-breaking Open Labs game jam, at Google Campus in London. It’s fair to say that I have a taste for game jams now, but as the delay in my writing this proves, I don’t have the most productive of recovery rates.

Hazel demonstrates our game to Emma Rigby of CRUK and the team of scientists.
Hazel demonstrates our game to Emma Rigby of CRUK and the team of scientists.

Unlike my only other game jam experience, #CRUKgame was a full 48 hours of game-jamming, including facilities to eat and sleep on-site. It’s worth my saying that this was very welcome indeed; the abrupt finish at XX Game Jam put quite a dent in our productivity, and reduced a 24-hour jam to a mere 14. Pizza and lasagne flowed freely at Campus though, as did fizzy drink, Red Bull and plenty of beer – only fitting for a game jam to aid medical research, I’m sure!

The basement café at Google Campus, on the game jam's second day.

The Premise

For those who hadn’t already heard about the jam from the many news agencies who reported on it (see below for links), #CRUKgame was set up to tackle a problem which machines cannot solve, but which it’s believed the human eye can. In a nutshell: Cancer Research UK must sift through reams of data which illustrate the chromosomal makeup of confirmed breast cancer patients. The effort to identify common links and thus target medication better is held up by the nature of the data itself. It’s obtained using ‘noisy’ instruments, and it must fall to human intuition to sort the noise from relevant changes in the gene pairs which make up each patient’s chromosome. There’s much more reliable (and extensive) information on this at Cancer Research UK’s own blog, of course.

An example of CRUK's chromosome data, obtained using a microarray.
An example of CRUK’s chromosome data, obtained using a microarray.

Our task, then, was to design a game which would encourage players to interpret this data themselves, ideally without even realising they were doing it. More than that, CRUK wanted to make full use of social gaming in order to spread the message and get as many people playing the game. This method of ‘gamifying’ the data is truly a fascinating one, and it proved to be a challenging one as well.

GenePets

The idea we developed and pitched was an ambitious one, led by Hazel McKendrick’s blunt observation that actually there was no way to make sorting this data fun (though I did try!). Instead we developed a social game along the same lines as Zynga’s FarmVille, wherein sorting the data was a stepping stone to the wider game rather than its core focus. We chose as our theme the nurturing of pets, and built a game of collecting, competing and bragging with friends around the simple ‘chore’ of analysing chromosomes. We would reward players for completing the activity, with coins to spend in the game and special gens which could be used to mutate their pets. Mutations could then be used as a means of customising the players’ pets, but more importantly to lend them various new abilities in a Crufts-style competition – home to most of the game’s social features.

An early iteration of our game flow chart. The prototype could never recreate this, but we used the framework when generating our menus and concept art.
An early iteration of our game flow chart. The prototype could never recreate this, but we used the framework when generating our menus and concept art.

Ours was a three-person team, as I had the pleasure of working with Hazel again (she coded Donkey Kog Country for XX Game Jam) and we were joined by Mitch Svastisinha, a student at City University London. With so few artists in attendance at the jam (it had an overwhelming bias towards developers), it fell to me to churn out as many assets as I could, while keeping tabs on the game design. Fortunately this now falls well into my expectations, as I’ve found that designers really only have a limited worth at game jams once work has begun.

Some of the assets and designs I produced in the course of making "GenePets".
Some of the assets and designs I produced in the course of making “GenePets”.

Results

The game jam produced some 13 projects from 11 teams, with some impressive variety in ideas if not execution. One thing was clear: the core mechanic of encouraging players to draw lines (or have lines interpreted by their movements in a 2D space) was already well-set, so in a way it actually fell to us to dress that mechanic up somehow. For that, it’s clear that the game jam’s pool of mostly web developers came in very useful, and there were some truly beautiful ideas in play. Games makers like Hazel and I, on the other hand, seem instead to have aimed at a incorporating the data analysis mechanism into a wider experience. I for one was fascinated by this difference in approach.

In the end, Cancer Research UK definitely seem to have achieved their goal. Over the course of 48 hours, they’ve encouraged a few dozen professionals and students to explore 13 different takes on the same idea, taking a lot of pressure off the next phase of their own development. What happens now is that a final product will be made over the course of a few months, to be announced in the Summer. We do not yet know which game will provide its template, but I imagine it will end up being an amalgamation of various game jam projects.

I’m excited to see what CRUK take forwards, but I’m also deeply excited by what we achieved as teams and individuals. Each project was developed to tackle a problem which will literally save lives. The last time Cancer Research attempted this crowdsourcing of data analysis, they cut 18 months’ worth of work down to just 4. The sooner we can develop cures, the more lives can be saved, and that’s one hell of a thing to have done with my career skills. I have high hopes for CRUK’s final game.

A conceptual graphic illustrating victory at the contests in which players could test their pets.
A conceptual graphic illustrating victory at the contests in which players could test their pets.

On a lighter note, Hazel and I did walk away with a prize for ‘most prolific tweeters’, so if you do check out the #CRUKgame hashtag, be prepared to see our avatars quite often.

Links

Press

There was also web-based coverage at Reuters, Sky News, Wired, The Daily Mail, PCPro, Fast Company and some Spanish-language sites, including Alt1040 and Interactive Magazine. I heard tell that Russia Today also featured the story on television, but I haven’t found any recordings for that.