Cancer Research GameJam Video

Cancer Research UK have posted their (rather gorgeous) video highlights from their game jam to beat cancer, held earlier this year in Shoreditch:

Bizarrely I have been credited as “Gemma Raygun”. I believe I am okay with this.

As the video says, Cancer Research UK will be developing a game based on either one or a handful of the prototypes we developed. I’m not holding my breath for GenePets, but I suppose we won’t know until it’s made!

Source: Cancer Research UK blog.

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.


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”.


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.



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.

XX Game Jam

Donkey Kog CountryThe weekend before last was something of an historic event, certainly in my career, but also for the image of women in the games industry. I took part in the world’s first all-woman game jam, held in Mind Candy’s offices in Shoreditch. The XX Game Jam was an effort backed by many fine organisations, including UKIE, the London Games Festival and Ada Lovelace Day. It brought over two dozen female game developers together in order to form teams, plan and develop playable game prototypes within a 24-hour period.

While it was certainly a bold attempt to highlight the worth of the industry ‘s feminine minority – an issue whose very existence still shocks me – it was not, as a persistent core of blinkered critics suggest, the first in a series of male-exclusive events. If I may stand a brief protest, this sort of reaction is really beginning to vex me. I’m grateful to my team-mate, Holly, for putting this feeling into eloquent form.

My summary of the event is an unapologetically clumsy and biased one, because not only was it my first game jam, but I walked away from it as one of the winning trio. I can’t help but recap the event from my own perspective, so if I may start from the beginning…

Setting Up

Our theme was to be clockwork, as in the machinery which Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage were working on at the end of the 19th century. We were free to interpret the theme in any way we chose, and although most teams did include Ada’s likeness in some way, this was not mandatory. We then formed our teams – in amusing fashion, since there was only one sound artist in attendance and there seemed to be relatively few designers to go around. I think I’m right in remembering that every other team formed a group of 5 or 6, leaving our team as the only trio.

The first development session was only a few hours long, as we had to brainstorm our game and work out each person’s role before a strict 11pm deadline – making this a 14-hour game jam rather than a 24-hour one. Our whiteboard, then, was quite a hurried affair:

XX Game Jam 26-10-2012 21-05-39

Hard Graft

As lady developers trickled in the next day, we faced a solid 10-hour session armed with tea, Drumstick lollies and sandwiches. It was during this time that Holly designed and created a fully-animated character, as well as our 2D environment art. Our programmer (and only team member with experience of previous game jams) had assembled a platform game framework in Unity overnight. They would go on to set up the necessary tags and behaviours for me to create the game’s levels.

I spent the first chunk of our time seconded to audio, making use of Creative Commons libraries and the web-based BFXR tool for creating game audio from scratch. When the time came to generate our levels, I was placed in the very unusual circumstances of having to learn Unity from scratch. Somehow we pulled it off, and with 30 minutes to go before our deadline, we started deploying Donkey Kog Country to PC and Android builds.

Thanks in no small part to the power of Unity, we were able to test our game multiple times throughout the afternoon on my Nexus 7 tablet, as well as on laptops. I cannot describe the feeling of delivering a .EXE and a .APK to the game jam’s Dropbox folder right on time, with wine and beers close to hand as we finally allowed ourselves chance to celebrate.

We did so first by seeing each other’s presentations, with each team showing an accomplished and really quite different take on the game jam’s theme. It’s remarkable enough that no one team failed the task in such a short time limit, but to then see such variety..! I’d felt we may have ended up treading on someone else’s toes with our simple platformer, but Donkey Kog Country sat alongside: a chase game set in a musical box; a 2D platformer starring a clockwork grim reaper; a switch-based action game; and a love story puzzle game set on rotating cogs, named Lovelace (see below).

Andrea Hasselager presents "Lovelace"
Andrea Hasselager presents “Lovelace”

Kicking Back

Presentations concluded, the next couple of hours were marvellously fun, as all five teams relaxed and chatted about the past 24 hours’ efforts. I also took this opportunity to pass my Nexus 7 around, as it ran our barely-tested, touch-input version of Donkey Kog Country. This was a first for me: being able to pass somebody a game which I helped to design, and witness their reactions as they played. My favourite of these has to be Zuraida “Zo-ii” Buter of World Game Jam fame, who’d dropped in to observe the closing hours of our efforts.

Her frustrated reaction was justified: this was an infuriatingly hard game. My team-mate had coined the perfect description earlier that day, painting Donkey Kog Country as “an artistic commentary on maso-core”. Somehow it had a hold on people though, and we spent much of the night willing players to the end of level two. Thus far only four people have done it – myself, one of the game judges (!), “Zo-ii” and now my boss. You’re welcome to try yourself…

In Summary

Dr. Jo Twist announces the prize for the first all-woman game jam.
Dr. Jo Twist announces the prize for the first all-woman game jam.

The XX Game Jam adhered to usual practice and a “winner” was declared.. to be us, for which I certainly am proud. The organisers gifted us each the delightful prize of a toolbox, emblazoned with the XX Game Jam logo and packed with handy things which I’ve genuinely found use for since.  We were also asked to contribute to a documentary which was being filmed at the event. We were each asked to leave something inspirational for 10-year-old girls who might consider joining the games industry. I cannot for the life of me remember if what I said made any actual sense, but after three solid days of GameCity booth work, that 24-hour trial and two tumblers of wine, I can at least be sure it was heartfelt and spontaneous.

I took a great many things from this event, and chief amongst those was a greater respect and affection for my fellow women in the games industry. Apart from working directly with two fabulously talented people in my own team, it’s been great to connect with the other participants since then.

Taking men out of the equation may be a controversial move in some people’s eyes, and I’m certainly a champion for equality rather than feminine superiority, but there’s no denying that women are a minority at the moment, and the event gave us as individuals a chance to work with people we can feel naturally more comfortable with. By all means, sign me up for a gothic game jam, or one for retro sci-fi fans, but as a woman I’m still likely to find myself in a room with an overwhelming majority of men at either of those game jams. I’m confident that the XX Game Jam – and the media around it – will further the campaign to boost this single sector of our slowly-diversifying workforce. Games design, those of us who work at it, and even the games themselves will benefit from that change.

"Donkey Kog Country" in its game jam-complete state, running on Unity for web.
“Donkey Kog Country” in its game jam-complete state, running on Unity for web.