Cancer Research UK’s game app ‘Play to Cure: Genes in Space’ intelligently uses gamification to analyse and translate genetic data to advance research on life saving cancer treatments. Now we have the perfect excuse to play games; after all, what could be more important than curing cancer?

Flying spaceships and evading incoming asteroids is the unlikeliest way to cure cancer. Isn’t it? Who would have imagined that playing an arcade/action space game can help cancer research? And yet a team of scientists, gamers and designers from Cancer Research UK, Amazon, Google, Facebook and others just unveiled such a simulation game called ‘Play to Cure: Genes in Space’.

This free game, available on both iOS and Android, intelligently uses gamification to analyse, sort out, translate and find patterns in genetic data which can then be used in developing life saving treatments for cancer diseases.

Like most science enthusiasts, we too were very excited about this new innovative idea and couldn’t wait to get our hands on the app but then, somewhere at the back of our heads, we did have some lingering doubts about the fun quotient of the game and the extent the designers have to compromise to balance the primary purpose of the app, in this case cancer research, and entertainment. But we must admit that we were surprised. They did pull off a great game app.

The game is set 800 years from now in the future. A mysterious substance, called Element Alpha, found in the voids of deep space has many applications in medicine, engineering and construction, and the demand for it has been exploding in the intergalactic market.

The gamer, as an employee of Bifrost Industries, one of the largest traders of the substance, must collect as much Element Alpha as possible to upgrade spacecraft, weapons and stuff and rise through the ranks at the company from Recruit to Galactic Legend.

The gamers need to navigate the spaceship through asteroids and empty space and amass Element Alpha. They also need to plan their routes to maximise Alpha collection and time the substance trading to increase profits.

But how does this help cancer research? Scientists need to analyse vast amounts of genetic data as part of their research. They have to sift through DNA microarray structure of tumour cells to identify subtle patterns, peaks and troughs of DNA faults to identify what causes cancer.

The computers can do a part of this task without human intervention but, as in the case of reading captcha codes, humans perform better than the existing software programs in identifying subtle changes in DNA microarray data patterns.

The game translates vast DNA microarrays into asteroid fields and the DNA faults into Element Alpha. So, when a gamer is navigating his spaceship and mapping routes to haul Element Alpha, he is actually identifying the DNA faults in an enormous genetic data. By translating tedious work into an enjoyable game played by hundreds of thousands of gamers, what normally takes hours for the scientists to do, the same can be done now in minutes.

The good: It’s a cool and very creative idea. The thought that you are helping a worthy cause adds value and meaning to what you are doing. Now when an irritated mother scolds her high school son to get off the games and do his homework, he can give a perfect altruistic excuse saying, ‘But Mom, I am helping cure cancer’. The graphics, while not the industry best, are pretty impressive. The ships are awesome. The game is simple and anyone can learn to play it. It has good action quotient to make it enjoyable. In fact, unless explained, most people probably won’t get where the science part is in the game when playing it.

The not so good: The game requires much optimisation. It needs to be made compatible with more devices to attract more players. Right now, the game can be played only on iOS 4.0 or later and Android 2.3 and up but we experienced crashes on even the best available smartphones in the market.

A serious issue that annoyed us is that when a player exits from the game and logs in later, all progress is lost and the player has to begin it all over again. It can be disheartening to go from Level 15 to Level 1 for gamers every time they log out and this is a big put off. Also, one needs to log in every time the game is played.

At times, the asteroid field seems too dense and nearly impossible to get through without dying. And they come in too fast for touch controls. But then, since these asteroid fields are but translation of genetic data, we assume that there isn’t much the gamers can do about it.

If the above glitches can be worked out (this is only the first version, so bugs are expected), the game can attract more popularity. A little more optimisation to this fantastic idea would be great. Now every smartphone user can be a science hero and help scientists beat cancer.