The Longitude Prize is a 5-year long challenge with a £10 million prize fund, run by innovation charity Nesta. It aims to help find a solution to one of today’s biggest threats to public health, the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As part of an awareness campaign to reach the scientists of tomorrow, Nesta decided to commission the production of a game that would bring science and play together.
We are passionate about Health games, so when the brief came through, we jumped at the chance to be a part of this innovative project. We knew we could use our love of biology and instructional design to create something scientifically relevant, beautiful and engaging, that naturally encourages players to take part.
The outcome was a bacteria-smashing addictive game with a design inspired by arcade classics and the visually striking reality of bacterial colonies.
Antibiotics have come a long way since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, bringing us ever closer to the end of death from bacterial infection. When we’re seriously injured or unwell, we rely on antibiotics to keep us safe, yet new ones are discovered rarely and access to them is not always easy. When an antibiotic is used, any bacteria that it doesn’t successfully kill becomes resistant and begins to reproduce. This means that when an antibiotic is overused, eventually only resistant bacteria will remain and the drug will lose its effect. By using the correct antibiotics, and only when they’re needed, the drugs we already have can last longer and give scientists enough time to discover new ones.
In the development of the game, we turned to the design of the gameplay itself to give players a clear understanding of the relationship between antibiotics, bacteria and resistance.
How the game works
Games, by their very nature, pull players in to construct their own learning experiences. They make the complex seem simple and are a great tool to encourage engagement with science.
The idea from the start was that Superbugs would use its basic mechanics to shed light on the science of resistance. The aim of the game is simple: for the player to survive for as long as possible by killing bacteria in a petri dish before it fills up completely.
The bacteria becomes more and more resistant to the player’s antibiotic as the game goes on, meaning that using them sparingly is key as the player is forced to wait longer and longer whilst new antibiotics are researched.
Ensuring the game was true to the science was a challenging task. We wanted to make sure that the game was effective at teaching the central scientific concepts, so we conducted extensive research and drew on the expertise of Nesta’s network of scientists. Their insight and help in developing the mechanics of the game was fascinating.
Balancing the timescale of the game was an important factor. We wanted to remind players of the scale of this problem and the speed at which it’s growing. The best players will survive until around 2050 – the date, within most of our player’s lifetimes, which is described as a potential crisis point in the UK government’s recent AMR Review.
We believe strongly in the power of games to create powerful learning experiences and hope that the science and messages behind Superbugs, our simple game of human vs. bacteria, will resonate and stay with our players long after they stop playing.
Making Superbugs was a test of our ability to reach out and engage players with relevant and complex scientific content, and we hope that it seeds an interest in science in our players as well as a deep understanding of the issue at hand, and that they enjoy playing it as much as we enjoyed making it.
Can a game really help to save 50 million lives a year? We believe it might.