Launched at an event in London today (4 February) the game, called “Play to Cure: Genes in Space”, embeds gene data from cancer tumours into gameplay. O’Briain said the charity hopes that by getting a large number of people to give a small amount of their time they will be able to analyse patterns in the data more quickly.
“Casual gamers, people on the tube, they will pick it up because they get to travel through space scooping up stuff. The game reminds you that you’ve analysed seven sets of cancer data, that will give people a virtuous glow. It’s a classic example of being able to use spare time wisely and know that you’re doing something to help,” he said.
O’Briain told Marketing Week there has been a rise in so-called “citizen science projects”, mainly due to the huge increases in data from science and research projects. He said he hoped his involvement with Cancer Research UK would help raise the campaign’s profile and he plans to promote it to his 1.6 million followers on Twitter.
“It’s easier to have someone that people know, as well as someone from gaming and science stuff. I’m the nerd for hire. We’ve done similar on [BBC programme] Stargazing and it’s an interesting development for science that seems to work. There are some problems where you need one great mind but a lot of science these days is lots of people doing something over and over to find a pattern,” he added.
Cancer Research UK is hoping to tap into this trend to make its research more relevant to supporters. The charity overhauled its identity two years and is hoping to put across a warmer and more emotional brand message.
Ed Aspel, Cancer Research UK’s head of strategic marketing, told Marketing Week that the charity wants to reflect the fact that 40 per cent of its supporters have been affected by cancer and engage with them so they feel like a participant in the fight against the disease.
“This is a perfect blend of fundraising and marketing, building a really strong supporter base to help with our cause of curing cancer sooner. There are a lot of people that want to genuinely help our scientists look for a cure.
“It’s bang on strategy, looking at not just how to fundraise but what we can do in terms of new techniques to engage supporters behind our cause,” he said.
This is Cancer Research UK’s second citizen science project after the launch of Cell Slider in 2012. That project asked the public to investigate 2 million images from an online interactive database of cancerous cell samples.
In total, the charity says more than 200,000 people got involved and that work that would have taken lab researchers 18 months was completed in just three. Aspel said he hopes the smartphone game will prove more popular by tapping into the growing mobile gaming market.
“We are looking to see if by putting it as a mobile game we get more frequency and number of players. We really want to see if we can get mass volume behind this by launching a game that has real value. Why play Solitaire on the train when you could play this?” he asked.
The game is available for free on Android and iOS. It asks users to guide a spaceship safely through an intergalactic assault cause to collect a precious metal called “Element Alpha”.
Every time a player steers their spaceship through the course, they are actually looking at gene data and spotting patterns. This information is then fed back to Cancer Research UK, which will use the data to identify new cancer genes and therefore devise new diagnostic tests and treatments.
The initial game uses breast cancer data from 2,000 patients in the UK and Canada but if it proves successful the charity has plans to expand it to include data from other types of cancer. Aspel said he hopes to launch more games under the “Play to Cure” banner and is considering expanding the project to embed data into other services such as Recaptcha or how people unlock their phones.
“This is just the beginning. Gaming is one option to see how we can make analysis of data into a fun or into a regular frequent activity that actually helps us in our bid to cure cancer,” he said.
Cancer Research UK will send out direct marketing to promote the launch to its supporter base. It will also take out Facebook ads and support that with updates on its social media channels, including Facebook and Twitter. To sign up to the game, users have to enter their email address, giving the charity insights into who is playing the game, whether it be supporters, mobile game enthusiasts or people interested in popular science.