The past two years has seen the biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust ramp up its activity in the gaming scene. Their exhibitions on DNA, Drugs, and Dirt were each coupled with a game to explain some of the core concepts –Axon, High Tea, Filth Fair - and they provide large funding packages for those using games to explore scientific concepts.
We caught up with the Trust's gaming consultant Tomas Rawlings to talk about the 2012 ExPlay Game Jam and their Gamify your PhD initiative.
PCGN: Why has the Wellcome Trust
taken an interest in games?
Tom: The guy who founded
Wellcome, Henry Wellcome, was passionate that science was a part of
human culture and that you didn't see a separation between the two.
So part of Wellcome's mission, in addition to these big major
challenges, is to engage with people so that they see science and
Games are a great method to talk about
science because games by their nature are dynamic, they're
interactive, and science is very hands on. So if you want to explain
to somebody a complex system whereby as you change what's in the
system the system changes as a result, games are a great way to do
that because rather than just talking about it you can let the person
experience it themselves.
I mean, ultimately, if you think about
what a player does when they play a game they are using the
scientific method, I mean they get dropped into a game on the first
level, you don't know the rules of this new world, so what you have
to do is trial and error to figure it out, and by trial and error you
construct a set of rules in your head “If I touch this object I
die, whereas if I jump over it I'm OK” and ultimately they are
constructing a series of rules to help them navigate that world. And
really, that's what science does. It's by trial and error, by
experimentation we construct a series of rules that allow us to
understand and engage with the natural world.
I'm keen to see that sort of thing
happen and hopefully out of the game jam that will exemplify what I'm
talking about in using the science and the gaming to engage the user.
Gamify Your PhD is actually slightly
different from a game jam, there's a methodological similarity, but
with Gamify Your PhD we're putting the scientist in the role of the
game designer. So the scientist is building the game with the backup
of developers to help them; that's why we have fully formed teams of
developers working with them: they're used to working with clients,
they're used to supporting them, so it's a slightly different
approach. Whereas the ExPlay game jam is open to the public, it's
free – people can just sign up and take part – there's a bit
more, game jams by their nature, they're a bit more you don't know
what you're going to get out of it. There's a lot more surprise in
it, so that's great.
They're two things that share the same
root method but they're trying to arrive at the same sort of thing
which is great games with great science, but by very different routes
and in a way I don't really know how they'll perform in relation to
each other. They'll both produce good results, but they'll both
produce very different results.
So is the ExPlay Game Jam following
a pretty traditional formula?
It will begin with the scientists
involved presenting the theme. Obviously, because Wellcome are
involved it, will be something to do with Biomedical Science. But,
again, it will be looking for something creative from that, the
scientists will be there to present the science and they will be on
hand for any of the teams to talk about it. What we've found from
running collaborative workshops between scientists and creatives,
developers, and people like that is that the initial presentation of
the science is a good starting point but actually what works very
well is when you can have a chat with the scientists and drill down
into the subject, you find some very fascinating game hooks in there.
So we're keen for the scientists to be around, to be on tap
basically, to be used as a resource. So they won't be joining any of
the teams but they will be available to all of the teams to be used
as a resource.
The scientists will also take part in
the judging panel at the end because there will be some awards. Like
most game jams, the taking part is really the biggest thing, the
enjoyable thing, but you also want to celebrate the achievements that
come along. So there'll be a few prizes and there'll be awards which
will be awarded later. The actual awards ceremony will be rolled into
the ExPlay Festival's awards ceremony, the TIGA awards.
What's Wellcome looking to get out
A couple of
exemplar games that really do well. In fact, we will be encouraging
all the participants to look at Wellcome's funding strands at the end
of this. So if a game's gone particularly well, it's got a lot of
potential to engage people in Biomedical Science, let's get a funding
What sort of funding's on offer to
Game studios can apply to Wellcome to
get a pot of money that varies in size from £10,000 upwards, there
are much larger awards that Wellcome sometimes makes for projects
that meet with those aims. Part of my role is to encourage more games
studios to look at these pots of funding and apply for them. And
though I'm keen they contact Wellcome first rather than just apply;
it definitely helps to have a grants advisor to chat to them. It's in
everybody's interest that the people who apply have the right
information they need and it's the right funding for them. The more
funds that get approved the better.
Plus, in talking over an idea, you
could redirect a project, refine it into something better.
Tom: Yes. There's also very important
distinctions on what Wellcome does. Wellcome is interested in
biomedical science not, for example, public health. While there's a
degree of overlap between those it's crucial that it hits those
biomedical science areas for Wellcome to be interested. But it's also
– and this is one of the really good things about working with them
– they're not didactic about it, they don't want to ram science
down people's throats.
What they want is, and it's back to
that point about science and culture being together, they want to see
content where the science sits naturally. Like, one example, Deus Ex:
Human Revolution, it's not a Wellcome project but it's a great
example of where cutting edge science has informed the content of a
mainstream game, and I think it's a better game as a result or having
that scientific credibility and yet at the same time the game play
isn't compromised at all, it's a brilliant game.
It's not always about the money,
although the funding is an important bit of what Wellcome does, it's
also about the scientific expertise that are on offer, the ability of
Wellcome to work with people to bring ways of operating that just
wouldn't happen without their help.
They have this massive untapped
resource of scientific minds to be used to inspire, if you're doing a
game and it has some sort of DNA aspect and you though “Well I'd
like to know a bit more about this”, we can put you in touch with a
scientist. Wellcome also looks at games in regards to education,
especially what they call 'Informal learning'. So Wellcome's interest
in games is pretty wide reaching, which is why it's important to be
strategic about it because there are lots of areas it can touch on.
Thanks for your time!
The ExPlay Game
Jam is taking place in Bristol and London this October and is
currently open for registration. It's free to take part but there are
a limited places, so go
here to secure yours.