Help Beat Cancer – Play a Mobile Space Game!

Help Beat Cancer – Play a Mobile Space Game!


A Serious Game Helps Analyze Complex Cancer Research Data

Although serious games have many uses – employee engagement, marketing and learning among them – one area that may prove as a surprise is cancer research. After all, researchers don’t need games, and cancer research cannot be done by just anyone, right?

Play to Cure: Genes in Space is proving this wrong. Aimed at gamers on mobile devices, Genes in Space speeds up data analysis by challenging gamers to map a course through a field of “Element Alpha” material, then fly the course to collect material. In reality, Element Alpha is DNA microarray data, and gamers are actually mapping patterns that help scientists spot DNA faults.

The game’s effectiveness was proven just a month after release, as gamers crunched six months of genetic data in that short time. Researchers have kept up with the app as well, fixing bugs and other problems in response to gamer feedback. If the developer can keep gamers engaged, this game could be a major boon to cancer research in the future.

But this is not the first attempt at using crowdsourcing to help with research – web apps like Cell Slider and desktop apps like FoldIt have been around for some time. So what’s special about Genes in Space?

It is simple and easy to use compared to other tools. Cell Slider requires you to detect small differences between cells found in microscopic images, and although using FoldIt doesn’t require any work, the actual gamification features are obscure and difficult to set up. Genes in Space is a game – and a fairly simple one at that – so it requires no squinting and no advanced computer knowledge.


It immerses gamers using a popular theme. Cancer Research UK could have made an abstract app where you simply plot graphs and travel through them, but they made the smart choice of giving the game a strong theme. Using special terms like “Element Alpha” and giving players a basic plot helps immerse them in the game. Space is always a popular theme for games, so choosing it as a theme helps draw more gamers to Genes in Space.

It uses proven gaming concepts to keep players engaged. Game developers have long known that systems like leveling, upgrading and customization add to a game’s fun and engagement factor. Cancer Research UK went the extra mile and incorporated these gameplay features into Genes in Space, making an otherwise basic game more engaging. Gamers might choose to play this game not just because they want to help cancer research, but because they want to earn enough in-game money to buy the next ship upgrade.

The Future of Genes in Space

One problem inherent in the videogame industry is the “consumable” nature of many games. A game might be very popular for a few months, but interest in it wanes as newer games are released. Although Genes in Space will likely remain unique, the question of keeping gamers engaged is still a vital one.

Cancer Research UK is already heading in the right direction by paying attention to feedback and fixing bugs in the game, but if they want to keep the player count high and the data analysis rolling in, they should look to regularly adding features and improvements to the game. This is a proven method that many other developers have used to keep their games alive, including Mojang of Minecraft fame.


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