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The Unusual Way in which Video Games are Fighting Disease

For almost 50 years science has been battling to find a cure for cancer, but now science is turning to an unlikely source to help in their fight. They are turning to the incredible power of video gamers.

Research is a hugely time intensive process, it involves endless experiments and then trawling through masses of data in an attempt to find something that will get them closer to a cure. Whilst scientists are specially trained for the experiments part, there is absolutely no reason why the time consuming data analysis cannot be outsourced, making the whole research process faster and allowing the scientists to focus on what they are good at.

Enter video gamers, the unusual answer to the data analysis problem but one which has already proven to reduce research time down from 18 months to a mere 3 months. Yep gamers are that important in the fight against disease and it’s time the world learned why.

Genes in space is a game that was released in early 2014 by Cancer research UK. The game has you piloting a spacecraft, zipping through space which destroying asteroids. With the aim being to hunt for the elusive element Alpha which looks like space dust and is collected as you fly through it. When the game starts you are shown a map that shows the location of element Alpha in space. Your job is to plot a course that passes through the densest areas of this element and thus collect more of it. Whilst flying you have to pass through rings and avoid/blast numerous asteroids, eventually reaching the end of the course and helping decode some scientific data.



The map is the crucial part of the game, not only is it a map of element Alpha deposits but its also an actual representation of genetic data. Rather than flying through space you’re actually flying through the DNA data (Genome) of a breast cancer patient. By locating the areas that appear to have the highest concentration of element Alpha you’re identifying where DNA may have become faulty. For a scientist to manually go through this would take hours but with hundreds of people playing this game it speeds up the process to a few minutes.

The game features 46,000 DNA data sets, which normally scientists would have to decipher themselves. On average a scientist can take 3 hours to analyse a data set, which means it would take 138,000 human hours or 15 years worth of individual human effort. That’s incredibly time consuming. However, compare that to gamers, who collectively through the use of Genes in Space would study the data in only 127 days (a huge saving of over 5,000 scientist work days). Yep, you need to show this article to your parents whenever they tell you to stop gaming.

The whole concept works by transforming mountains of data into a game, which in turn entices hundreds of people to take part. They don’t always know they are helping science, as for many it’s just a fun game. Yet imagine the power of gamers around the world who are collectively spending approximately 3 Billion hours a week playing online games. By using some of that time to shoot some asteroids and fly through the universe, gamers are helping to speed up cancer research without even realising it.

CellsliderAnother such game is CellSlider. It was an online programme released by Cancer Research UK in 2012. It’s a simple game where users match an image to a category, What users were actually doing was classifying images from tumour samples. Just doing this simple task Cancer Research helped reduce the time taken to analyse cancer data from 18 months to just 3 months.

Genes in Space is a huge improvement on this concept. Now it’s more of an actual game rather than a sorting system. It’s able to hit a wide audience because of the beautiful look and appeal of the game. They made it feel less sciency and more like an actual game and effectively harnessing the growing power of gamers.

Imagine a future where these types of games are even more widespread, with gaming studios such as Bungie or Rockstar making games which are actually progressing the fields of science and medicine too. Imagine playing through the new Halo while also helping Alzheimer’s research or playing GTA whilst contributing to a cure for cancer. Imagine one-day games companies will turn into actual scientific research centres, leading the fight against disease and becoming a key partner in any future scientific advancement. I bet mommy and daddy will finally be proud then

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  • John - January 29, 2015 reply

    Who would have thought that you could have fun and help cure cancer?!

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