In a poem years ago I wrote:
I wish I was a scientist so I could devote my life
To destroying the disease that destroyed yours
While I am still not a scientist, there is finally a way for me, and thousands or millions of other non-scientists, to help in the fight against cancer. All we have to do is play a video game.
Scientists at Cancer Research UK partnered with game developers at Guerilla Tea to create the free mobile game Play to Cure: Genes in Space. While the title may conjured up images of low budget 1950’s sci-fi movies that later generations know from Mystery Science Theater 3000, the game is actually an ingenious way of allowing any number of players to analyze genetic data that would take hours for individual scientists to do on their own.
The game itself is quite simple: the player is hired by Bifrost Industries to pilot a spaceship in its collection of a value substance known as Element Alpha. Players then chart their course through a short level, targeting the densest pockets to collect as much of this substance as possible while flying through rings and shooting down asteroids. The flight sequence and collection are often followed by an asteroid field where players dodge and blast their way through a wave of space debris while collecting XP bonuses before reaching the end of the level. The collected Element Alpha can then be traded for credits used to purchase ship upgrades. While collecting Element Alpha during the flight sequence is enjoyable enough – with colorful graphics, nice views of distant stars and perhaps a planet, and a catchy, uptempo soundtrack – the game significantly picks up during its asteroid sequences.
In reality, it’s the simple flight through Element Alpha that is most important. These levels are actually anonymous genetic information collected from thousands of breast cancer tumors. In collecting “Element Alpha” players are analyzing this genetic data through their phones and transferring that information to Cancer Research UK, first by charting their path through the sequence and then collecting the data during their flight. Each sequence is played by numerous different players to verify the information transferred. By splitting the analysis between thousands of players, scientists are able to quickly analyze the overwhelming amount of information attained during the largest tumor study ever conducted to locate possible patterns and faulty genes. Thus every 30-second flight is one tiny step closer to better, more effective and personalized treatments against cancer.
Cancer Research UK’s initial attempt at gamifying genetic analysis, the 2013 game Cell Slider, is estimated to have reduced research time for a subset of breast cancer samples from 18 months to only three.
Play to Cure: Genes in Space is fun enough, the type of simple, repetitive, fast paced time-killer that perfectly fits commutes to and from work and brief waiting periods. The quick levels provide the “just one more” effect that the best MMOs thrive on. Yet far better is knowing that every minute spent flying through the cosmos vacuuming up space dust is one minute less that a cancer research has to spend in analysis and one more minute that can be spent generating cures that could, potentially, save millions of lives.
I am not a scientist, but I do play video games. While I won’t devote my life to Play to Cure, I can definitely spare a few minutes every day.