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Dysbiosis in action.

The Wellcome Trust was founded in 1936 with the aim of making the general public more scientifically literate. 76 years on, Gamify your PhD was a special kind of game jam, putting PhD researchers in the role of games designers and uniting them with developers to create games that could communicate scientific concepts while also being fun to play. The result? Amongst others, a game set deep inside the human gut. A team of developers from studios Force of Habit and Clockwork Cuckoo joined forces with postdoctoral researcher Margherita Coccia to create the winning game, developing what might well be the world’s first ever “intestinal bacteria shoot ‘em up.” This is how it happened.

After seeing a posting about the game jam on Facebook, Coccia says she was attracted to the idea and could see how her research into intestinal immunology could be both represented and explained through a game. “My lab is a very creative and quite playful environment, and we often joke about the parallels between the immune system and a battlefield, so I thought I could put those jokes into action,” she says. “In addition, I thought it would be great to answer the classical question ‘Could you explain to me what do you study?’ with a game.”

And explaining Coccia’s research isn’t the simplest of tasks. The laboratory she works in investigates inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), including Ulcerative Colitis and Chron’s disease, caused by an imbalance in the the intestine’s own defense mechanisms. Coccia’s own research looks at something called Interleukin-1 beta, which she explains is “A molecule produced at high levels in the intestine of IBD patients. I have shown that blocking it helps control IBD in preclinical models. We hope that this will lead us to exploring whether we can develop new drugs that block Interleukin 1 beta to use in IBD treatment.”

There’s obviously a challenge in bringing concepts like these to a wider audience, one who may not be so scientifically literate, but presenting them through a game allows them to be articulated in new and different ways, including elements of demonstration and cause-and-effect. Although she may not be a games designer, Coccia is a keen gamer (without any sense of irony, she says her favourite game is Theme Hospital). When she arrived at the game jam to meet with Force of Habit and Clockwork Cuckoo, she had come prepared, and with only two working days to make a game, the teams had to get down to business.

“Margherita came to the event with a pretty solid game design already sketched-out,” says Nick Dymond of Force of Habit, adding that the topic of Coccia’s design and her area of research gave an immediate focus to their work. “Once we'd knocked off a few of the rough edges and filled out the mechanics a bit, I wrote-up a detailed checklist on a board and pulled it over to the edge of the table so everybody could see exactly what needed doing. Then it was a matter of prioritising the work so no-one ended-up sitting around waiting for assets.”

“The game was programmed in C++ using a framework that Ash [Gwinnell, also of Force of Habit] has put together himself and is geared towards rapid prototyping. He knows it inside out. It's the old adage of know your tools. In a game jam you get to see just how inefficient your working methods are. Now that we'd done a few together we've created a pipeline that's pretty slick.”

The result might well remind you of the early 80s classic Tempest, as Dysbiosis shares the same simplicity of design and hectic rate of play. As bacteria like listeria and salmonella attack the lining of your intestine, you do your very best to try and fight them off, bolstering your bowel with protective mucus. It’s certainly not the sort of concept we’re  accustomed to, but you can’t deny that it’s different, even memorable, which puts it right in line with the Wellcome Trust’s vision.

Dysbiosis beat off strong competition from an excellent collection of games, particularly remarkable considering how quickly they were developed, and including the unusually named yeast-based game Monsieur Baguette presents… RNA transcription of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae. Although there could only be one winner, who will now go on to receive funding that would help them better realise their game, the Trust has expressed its interest in following up with all the teams who took part in the game jam, so high was the standard of work produced.

Most importantly, Gamify your PhD certainly succeeded in demonstrating how elements of hard science could be explained, or at least introduced, through the medium of games, with Coccia saying she would like to see more games developed in the same vein.

“I was really excited to see that really complex concepts, which scientists themselves sometimes struggle to understand, could be explained quite simply in a game. It made me understand that games are incredibly potent tools for science education,” she says. “I think that science should be a component of ‘normal’ life and not confined to lab or university, so I really hope that we will see more and more science-based games.”

On a practical level, many of the scientists and developers also enjoyed working together and sharing best practice. “Having talked to some of the scientists it seems like there is much that software development can teach other industries insofar as workflow and use of tools,” says Dymond. “I'd like to see more cross-discipline events like this in future so that people get a chance to share their techniques and technology with one another.”

If Gamify your PhD has piqued your interest, you may well want to look out for the forthcoming
Explay Game Jam, in October, which will unites The Wellcome Trust and the Science Museum, and don’t forget to check out Julian’s interview with the Trust's gaming consultant Tomas Rawlings. It’s also definitely worth investigating Clockwork Cuckoo and Force of Habit, not least because the latter are now hosting Dysbiosis.

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