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15.6.2013

Will hack for pizza – a weekend in the life of a purestone developer


david impey.developer.hacker.gamer

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Will hack for pizza – a weekend in the life of a purestone developer

Whilst my MSc in Computer Games Technology has yet to make me millions in the mobile games market (watch this space!) as a City University alumnus I do get the opportunity to take part in some fun gaming events. A few weekends ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a 'GameJam' being hosted by Cancer Research UK at Google Campus, the purpose of which was to use Gamification to harness the power of the public and get them to process genetic data to find anomalies linked to cancer.





CRUK are no strangers to crowd sourcing having run a similar 'hackathon' last year, the result of which was Cell Slider (http://www.cellslider.net/) an application that teaches users how to identify cancer cells amongst regular cells and highlight them in a number of images. The problem they are trying to solve is that they have collected a lot of data but computer algorithms are just no match for humans when it comes to spotting patterns in the data that identify the presence of cancer and could therefore lead to a cure. This year the challenge set was to produce a mobile game that would enable deviations in gene sequencing data to be marked through the actions of the player. With favourites such as Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga listed as ideal candidates and 30 hours to develop a game concept the pressure was on!

The GameJam started on Friday night with an introduction to the challenge and the chance to meet other 'hackers' and form teams for the challenge ahead. I was initially daunted by the prospect of competing against so many other developers especially as representatives from Google, Facebook and Amazon were taking part, oh and did I mention? A film crew would be documenting the entire weekend along with drop-in visits by the BBC. My inner ‘fanboi’ soon got the better of me though and my excitement grew following the announcement that Facebook and Amazon were shouting for pizza!

After a second briefing on Saturday morning by CRUK scientists on the gene data for the game and how it should be marked, and following coffee and pastries and more pizza, the nine teams that had formed set up camp in either the third floor office or the basement canteen and started designing and developing their games, fuelled by regular supply-drops from the hosts of coffee, Red Bull, cakes and sweets. The rest of Saturday and most of Sunday passed in a blur of code and sweat, punctuated by the occasional interview and more pizza, with all but the most hard-core snatching a few hours of sleep on Saturday night, until Sunday evening when the teams gathered wearily once again for game demos.

The results of the GameJam were impressive and the data provided was represented as sheep, sprouts, coins, cabbages, asteroids and animals by a variety of games including sideways-scrollers, 3D space-shooters and touch-and-drag collectors. My team created an Android game in which the data was manipulated into a grid and then converted into pieces of fruit of varying value according to the density of the data in each square, with the purpose that by collecting the highest scoring horizontal lines of fruit the player would be directly identifying patterns in the data a computer might miss.

Although no outright winner was announced, the winners of the GameJam for me were the self-titled 'Team Awesome' from Amazon with their HTML5 game in which the data, represented as rain, was collected by moving various containers left to right with psychedelic 3D horses galloping at all angles in the background to put the player off. The real winners of course were CRUK who plan to use and combine the game concepts developed during the weekend to release a mobile game at the end of the year which will enable all the data they have collected to be processed and speed up the search for a cure for cancer.