Puns and prototypes: behind-the-scenes at ‘Gamify your PhD’
“Addictive, challenging and educational,” that was the remit for the 6 teams taking part in this week’s ‘Gamify you PhD’ event at the Wellcome Trust. The two-day hack event brought together PhD researchers and games developers from across the UK for what Wellcome Trust’s Daniel Glaser called an “innovative interaction”. The aim? To create new games that could explore and explain the latest developments in biomedicine, and more specifically the PhD research of the scientists taking part.
Tomas Rawlings, gaming consultant for the Wellcome Trust, explained the rationale behind the initiative, saying, “Science and games are a natural fit: both are about the participant seeking to understand the rules that govern the world they find themselves in and achieving this by experiments such as trial and error.”
It certainly seems a convincing theory. But though science and games may be a match made in heaven – what actually happened when 6 scientists and 21 games developers were thrown together for 48 hours? We asked some of those involved to give us their insights into what went on behind-the-scenes.
Tomas Rawlings, ‘The Organiser’
“With Gamify Your PhD we were trying to do things differently from other game hacks. First we wanted to embed a scientist into the process; they were not just advising but became a key part of the team. Second we wanted to create teams that we felt would be able to work in a creative but professional way right from the start. This fed into the design of the event: we recruited developers as complete teams, looking at the people mix as well as their experience in the production of rapid prototypes.
“In many ways the event itself was a huge experiment – we had no idea what would happen! But the key factors all came together: Wellcome’s support and infrastructure, enthusiastic scientists, talented developers, and lots of hard work. We produced 6 games of a really high standard and showed that games and science are a natural fit.”
Thomas Forth, ‘The Researcher’
“I saw the advert for ‘Gamify your PhD’ at wired.co.uk, via a long chain of fellow scientists on twitter, just six days before the deadline. I immediately knew that this was the chance I needed to develop some new ideas. I wanted to see if the computational technique I’ve worked hard to make visual could take the next step and become interactive.
“The games designers we worked with during the hack are masters of creating intuitive ways of interacting with complex systems. In minutes they could come up with solutions to problems I hadn’t even thought of. The final game needs some small improvements, but I’m already thrilled with what we’ve achieved. Ours was an extremely ambitious project and a lot of what we tried didn’t work. The Wellcome Trust deserves huge credit for letting us learn from our mistakes to create something better than I had ever hoped for.
“Progress in science often comes from using our understanding of existing systems to come up with new ideas. In the 21st century we are studying systems more complex than ever and we have fantastic new tools and techniques. But we are often held back by the cost, in time and training, of innovating. The solution is to look at problems differently and play with different solutions. We should work more with the gaming experts who have mastered that art.”
Ben Trewhella (Opposable Games), ‘The Developer’
“For this game jam style event at The Wellcome Trust’s London headquarters, PhD student Jane Reid joined forces with Opposable Games’ Ben Trewhella, Nat Al-Tahhan, David Johnston and James Parker. Together we formed the mighty Yellow team.
“We all learnt some very technical stuff about yeast and set about creating a fun game that would also help visualise the process of RNA transcription in Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Although she might argue otherwise, Jane’s PhD was essentially bread based. I scratched my head over sine wave transformations. Nat made the phosphates look cute. David composed some french bakery music. James made puns of the highest order. The resulting game was a simple point and shoot reaction puzzler that successfully combined fun gameplay with an accurate depiction of RNA transcription: “Monsieur Baguette presents… RNA transcription of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae”.
“Congratulations to the winning team, a collaboration between developers Clockwork Cuckoo and Force Of Habit, creating a game for Dr Margherita Coccia. Their intestinal shooter was a real hit combining incredible gameplay with an intuitive visualisation of the science involved. We can’t wait to see this taken further! We were also thrilled as Opposable Games came a worthy 2nd in the ranks, with Mobile Pie placed a close 3rd.”
Play the games!
We have evolved different mechanisms in our instestine to keep harmful invading microbes at bay, while fostering our beneficial bacteria. An imbalance in these mechanisms can put us at risk of chronic conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease, or increase the chance of dangerous infection. In Dysbiosis the player controls a collection of cells that form part of the intestinal wall, shooting harmful oncoming bacteria whilst allowing through the healthy bacteria. Bonuses allow the player to form a defensive mucus shield which can be further reinforced through contact with beneficial bacteria. Hits from pathological bacteria can eventually breach the wall, ending the game.
Monsieur Baguette presents… RNA transcription of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae
Jane Elizabeth Anne Reid with Opposable Games
(See video above. Currently not available to play. Out on iOS soon!)
RNA Polymerase II is the key enzyme responsible for the transcription of RNA in yeast cells, in a process that requires phosporylation of serines and tyrosines in a specific sequence. The team decided to put together a pattern matching game based around these chemical reactions and add a little humour – resulting in Monsieur Baguette presents… RNA transcription of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae.
Thomas Forth with Mobile Pie
http://media.mobilepie.com/simalaria/simalaria.html (Click to play in your browser)
Flux-balance analysis of the metabolic reactions in malaria is a powerful tool for predicting the parasite’s growth-rate in different conditions and in response to different drugs. Simalaria is a resource management puzzle game that accurately reduces a metabolic network with nearly 1000 connections to one with just five important junctions that the user controls. Can you make the right decisions to create enough offspring and survive at the end of the parasite’s 48 hour life cycle? Or will you run out of energy and be overwhelmed by the body’s immune system?
John J Kendall with Remode
http://www.remodestudios.com/PROJECTS/CampyCommand (Click to play in your browser)
Campy Command follows ‘Campy’ (the pathogenic bacterium Campylobacter jejuni) as it travels from its initial host (a chicken), into the aerobic environment (in this case a puddle) and onwards to infect a human host. The game starts out in a rhythm-action style as Campy collects amino acids to convert into energy. The second stage centres on protecting crucial metabolic enzymes from damage by avoiding damaging molecules of O2 and collecting protective hemerythrin proteins. The third stage focuses on the human immune response to infection as Campy races through the intestinal tract avoiding hydrogen peroxide, antibodies, macrophages and any other threats created by the host to stop it.
Joanne Gordon with Locked Door Puzzle
http://lockeddoorpuzzle.com/site/sites/default/files/contract/index.html (Click to play in your browser)
A survivor game emphasising a ‘relational’ conception of the will in addiction recovery, Ulysses Contract comprises a complex interplay of internal and external factors following the environment and people in an addict’s life. The game has 3 levels of increasing difficulty, representing natural recovery, treated recovery and the revolving-door phenomenon. In the 3rd level the player has the option of choosing a Ulysses Contract which boosts the will reserve, making it easier for the player to reach the end of the game.
In a rhythm-based parody of Guitar Hero, players must guide their uterus samples through the lab and extract as much high-quality RNA as possible. Each phase of the scientific process is performed by a well-timed key press, and scores are awarded for the number and quality of samples processed. The game is inspired by the individually mundane actions performed in a lab that collectively amount to the proper rigour of scientific method.
Image credits: Opposable Games
UPDATE 14/9/12 10:45: Updated link to Campy Command, which is now playable in browser.