Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Playing for the Cure - Curing Cancer One Asteroid at a Time

Mobile technology has moved from being the possession of a privileged few, only present as car phones in Lamborghinis, to being the every-present companion of every person. Whether you’re travelling on public transport, eating in a restaurant, or sitting in class, most people are on their mobile devices at most times. The Oscar-Winning movie Her even dramatizes this where your mobile device becomes not just your source of communication, but your friend and even lover.

This technological advancement has come with significant advancements in mobile entertainment, to the detriment of the use of these computing marvels for constructive use. Millions of apps have been downloaded hundreds of billions of times. Along with social media, fed in large part by its ability to be used on cell phones, mobile streaming of media and mobile gaming accounts for the vast majority of cell phone use. It is worth noting that every single cell phone that can be sold today contains computing power that is far in excess of what put man on the moon, yet we use it to watch videos of cute cats and crush candy of various different colors.

The question has to be whether this can be changed – whether or not it is possible to use these technological marvels for the benefit of society in general. The Cancer Research UK foundation has found a way to just that, by producing a game called Play to Cure: Genes in Space. Basically, the analysis of the scientists working on these projects had mapped out trillions of bytes of data, and they know the peaks and troughs, or errors, in the genetic code were where the cancerous genetic material. However, these need to be identified by the human eye. Therefore, in order to encourage a great number of people to analyze the data, a game was produced. Players will fly a spaceship through a field of debris representing the genetic data, and their aggregated path choices will enable scientists to map these problematic areas of genetic code.
“By understanding exactly where those peaks and troughs are, we can understand where to go and look for faults in genes that might be linked to cancer,” says Hannah Keartland, the director of the charity’s Citizen Science Project. "Every single second gamers spend playing our smartphone game directly helps our work to beat cancer sooner.” Unfortunately, the advances in the programming power of technology can’t help the scientists in this, but the mass use of mobile technology can. This is the opportunity we have to show that our cell phones can really be useful.

This is an especially creative use given that it actually places the onus of behavior on those playing the game itself. As one of the scientists say during a “How it was developed” video, scientists are very good at collecting mass amounts of data, but not very good at analyzing it. The data needs that human eye, and the creative viewing that cannot be produced by a machine. The Cancer Research UK Foundation turned around and put the onus of that creativity on those who would play the game. Those programmers who were interviewed in the video seemed to be extraordinarily enthusiastic about the idea. Their support is crucial – as nothing like this has been tried before, they are the closest that comes to a peer review system or field support for such an endeavor. Indeed, some even positing that they may have to program for charity instead of drinking in pubs as a hobby.
By doing so, they actually used one of the core concepts of the motivation for creativity. Early experts on creativity, including Freud, hypothesized that creative processes were used to reduce the “tension created by other, unacceptable desires” (Collins & Amabile, p297). Here, by making the game that consumers are playing more socially acceptable as it is helping to cure cancer, the game producers are actually helping people to play it and exercise their creativity. That creativity is at the core of the exercise, and by encouraging people to be creative, the cancerous genes are more likely to be identified.
In terms of an approach to a scientific discovery, this is very new. If a Nobel Prize gets given out, it will be interesting to see if every single game player must be listed as a co-worker. However, all joking aside, this is a creative approach to solve a serious problem, and we get to play games at the same time. What’s not to like?

You can download the game for iPhone here or for Android Here


  1. I think this is very ingenious and effective way to analyze a large amount of data. It is must be extremely cost effective in terms of man-hours and actual money. Instead of several lowly research assistants studying the numbers over the spans of months or even years, any person in his or her free time can contribute help to reduce the necessary time into fractions. Also, I believe this fits well into the idea of utilizing the general population for the common good. For example, asking the public to send in photos from the Boston Marathon Bombing to help get leads on the attackers. This just adds wonderfully to the versatile uses of mass media and our society's gamer mentality. I only wonder about how the game gives out sections of the code to individuals. Does each person get individual slices, so no game is ever the same? In addition, what happens if the person playing the game does a really bad job: does that impact the data collection?

  2. I agree with River that this is an ingenious way to get a lot of human (rather than computerized) eyes on something that is fairly easy to identify in extremely large quantities. However, it seems to me that in order to actually make it a game, there would either need to be a lot of redundancy in play (across all players) or that it would create so many potential places to look that it would still be essentially impossible for scientists to look at all the potential cancer-causing faults in genes. Additionally, I'm not so sure about the idea that this resolves tension created by unacceptable desires. Most people, especially of our generation, think that it is acceptable to spend at least some time playing games on phones or other gaming devices. So while it may still be nice for them to be able to say that they are working towards mapping cancer genes while they play, I don't think that they need to do that to resolve tension between different desires (to play games and to not play games, I guess).


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