Last Friday, we were joined by Jody Mason and Gaz Bushell; two old friends who used to spend a lot of time playing videogames together. Jody and Gaz’s professional careers have taken them in very different directions from each other. Jody is a senior lecturer at Essex University, who has been studying Amyloid Biochemistry for 12 years, and Gaz is a digital artist and games developer who set up independent games company Fayju in 2009. Biochemistry and games development are traditionally quite distinct fields, but Gaz and Jody are each fascinated by the others’ work and they enjoy discussing the ideas involved in their own fields of study, and cutting out all the jargon in order to do this. These conversations have lead to a collaboration between the two, and between biochemistry and games design: Cascade.

Cascade combines gameplay with the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease. In the game, Gaz has painted a neurological universe, which is feels like a beautiful, dynamic and immersive version of a scientific diagram. The whole project is a fascinating example of collaboration and the meeting of two keen interests. Both Jody and Gaz spoke to us about their own fields of work and how the project developed.

Jody spoke to us first, and shared some of the basic facts and processes of Alzheimer’s and efforts to treat it. We live in an ageing population, and because of this, Alzheimer’s is increasing. The disease affects 1 in 3 in the UK, as either sufferers, carers or relatives. Care for dementia patients (of which 60% is Alzheimer’s) costs the UK 23 billion, and this sum is rising year by year. The disease causes progressive memory loss, and speech and ability to recognise objects or people are severely affected. After diagnosis, the estimated diagnosis for an Alzheimer’s sufferer is 4 – 8 years. Alzheimer was a German neuropathologist working at the turn of the 20th Century who was the first to find a physical link with disease’s psychological symptoms, after he dyed the brain of a deceased patient, and saw a distinct shrinkage in the tissue of the brain, and also many plaques and ‘tangles’ which are recognised as the main cause of the disease’s destruction of brain cells.

To understand the disease, we need to know about proteins. Proteins are essentially just long chains of amino acids. They ‘fold’ into different 3 dimensional shapes in order to have different functions in the body. Sometimes though, these proteins can fold inappropriately, forming amyloids, which are responsible for many neurodegenerative diseases, one of which is Alzheimer’s. Beta Amyloid can be ‘snipped’ free from a protein’s coil by two enzymes; beta and gamma. The resulting floating amyloids attract to each other and lock together to form a plaque, which blocks off and breaks up the network of neurons in the brain, causing the neurons to die in a sort of ‘cascade’ chain reaction (hence the name of the game). One way of slowing down the process of Alzheimer’s is to inhibit the enzymes beta and gamma from snipping the dangerous, plaque forming amyloid free from the protein. Another way is to introduce more alpha enzyme, which will snip the amyloid in half.

Gaz used an iterative design process to expand the game environment into an infinite brain-scape. He used photographs and diagrams, in order to construct Cascade’s neurological world. The game involves travelling from neuron to neuron, trying to stop red and blue enzymes from creating this dangerous plaque out of tree-like amyloids. The game is still being developed, but as it stands, one of the agencies you have as a player is to control spaceships that are slightly pill shaped (giving it a pharmaceutical feel) which represent synthetic alpha: the enzyme that cuts the amyloids in half to prevent them being made into plaque. The next step is to develop an element of gameplay that allows you to block the enzymes, preventing the blue and red creatures (beta and gamma enzymes) from cutting the protein. Gaz wanted the game environment to mirror the scientific processes of the disease’s development and the prevention. Eventually the cell will be destroyed. The idea of the game isn’t conquer the disease, but to understand what it is doing, and how it effects the cells, so it is impossible to actually ‘win’ against the disease in the game. Cascade is a game about pathological cause and effect.
Gaz has developed version of the game that is compatible with an Oculus virtual reality headset, which is a really incredible thing to experience, as you are fully immersed in the stunningly strange neurological landscape that he has created. He is in the process of inserting a sort of virtual platform to stand on when using the headset, to combat the imbalance and nausea that can overcome some people when they feel as though they are floating in space.

Gaz and Jody want Cascade to be a not-for-profit game that raises awareness of the disease and its causes and encourages empathy. They both feel it is important that young people do not view Alzheimer’s as ‘some thing that old people get’ and want to promote the idea that the disease is a physical, and eventually tackle-able disease. The youth of today are the carers of tomorrow. If (and when) Scientists manage to slow down the disease by five years, this could reduce the number of related deaths by half. The aim is for the game to be fun and playable, so that the heavy science doesn’t put people off engaging with it, but also for it to be purely about pathology. When asked if they had compromised the Science in order to create a comprehensible gameplay, Jody said that there is a lot to the disease, but Beta Amyloid and the plaques that they can create are major players in the development of this disease.

Gaz and Jody want to feed some of the profits from the game into Alzheimer’s charities. This project is an exciting example of how different disciplines can come together to aid communication of certain subjects, and make information accessible. There are other examples of this kind of scientifically informed gameplay – Foldit is a scientifically accurate game where you can fold proteins. The game actually generates real science because it allows people to understand the process of protein folding, and whilst playing with it, you are essentially conducting research. The world of computer games is rapidly changing, and through developing Cascade, Jody and Gaz are playing an important part extending the boundaries of the meaning of gameplay.