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You are cancer in game that seeks to understand a killer

Cancer killed a beloved member of my family. It happened a few years ago.

Her loss, at a young age, was a devastation to those who are close to me. No other event in recent years has had a greater impact on my life.

Although this loss has been a never-absent facet of life, the reason for it, the cancer that killed her, has always been something of an enigma, a shadow.

I mean, we know all the words associated with the illness, the doctors understood entirely what was happening, did their best to cure her, furnished her desperate loved ones with cancer's horrible argot. But I realize that I have no real comprehension of the thing itself, of cancer.

Cancer has taken on the dimensions of evil, a spreading blackness

We would talk about it, as so many people do, as a thing. "We can beat this thing" is something people say. But what? Cancer has taken on, for me, the dimensions of evil, a spreading blackness. We hate and fear cancer, without fully comprehending its nature.

A video game is currently in development that seeks to explain cancer. Not what it does or how it affects us; those things are all too well known. But actually, what it is.

The unnamed game is being made by a company called Thwacke which, despite its slightly wacky name, is all about taking science really seriously, within the realm of video games.

I recently visited co-founder Sebastian Alvarado at Stanford University, where he works as a postdoctoral fellow, researching environment-gene interactions. He told me that the game will put the player in the role of a cancer cell, and the point of the game is to try to do what cancer cells do. The point is to spread.

"You play as cancer," he said. "You start as a single cell that circulates the human body and is given specific challenges that require you to divide and invade.

The game is not a sick joke. It is not a headline-grabbing gimmick. It is an attempt to teach a difficult subject. "This teaches you cancer transformation metastasis and the variety of ways cancer invades the body," he said. "We have a very rich amount of source material and access to a lot of surgeons and research. We are hoping to set the bar in educational games."

Developed with Rados Jovanovic as programmer and Kevin Neibert as co-designer, the 2D physical puzzle game will try to show how cancer asserts itself in the tissues of the body, and then explores new opportunities to spread and to grow.

"It's a cell that doesn't know it's own rules," said Alvarado. "Most cells know when to stop, when to follow the rules of the tissues that they exist in. Cancer doesn't. It grows and conquers and looks for more nutrients."

The indie game will use a familiar mechanic in order to teach how cancer operates. "Our approach is to align real biology with a game mechanic. We believe that invading and taking over territory is a very easy-to-adapt mechanic which aligns a lot with the science of cancer. But we restrict those mechanics to within the way cancer operates."

The more you understand it, the less you are inclined to feel helpless

Thwacke is best known as a consultancy that provides scientific research and data to game developers who are looking to anchor their creations to reality, or who are looking to exploit new ideas in the world of scientific research. The company has worked on Wasteland 2 and Outlast and advises Marvel. Alvarado recently sat on a Comic-Con panel, "The Science of The Avengers."

Many fiction creators are seeking ways to connect their fantasies with reality, especially when they deal with pseudo-science like DNA manipulation. Alvarado's work includes manipulating the size and caste of ants, not a million miles away from superhero doctrines.

But none of these sci-fi fantasies explore anything as dark and distressing as cancer. More than half a million people in the United States die from cancer every year.

I ask Alvarado if the deep emotional impact cancer has on us will feature in the game. "We are focused on learning about how cancer works, rather than how it affects people," he said. "One of the reasons we wanted to create this game is because cancer is demonized. People think it's them against something evil.

As a scientist it is my job to understand things

"Our approach is to present the player as the disease for the sake of learning about it and understanding it. We are looking at the drugs and treatments that cancer patients do use to interrupt them. We have lots of learning moments."

Cancer's devastating effect on the lives of individuals and families is the subject of another game, called That Dragon, Cancer, which investigates the emotional human cost. Thwacke's cancer game will be about the science, but it is not less interested in offering help to sufferers.

"It is almost easier to yield against a thing that is evil, but the more you understand it, the less you are inclined to feel helpless," he said.

But he said that everyone must face cancer in their own way, and that playing a game about something so devastating might be difficult. "I know there are people who say they would not play something like this. We talk and we listen because that is the best way to understand people.

"As a scientist it is my job to understand things. I am the kind of person who would want to understand things. I think it would help but I completely understand that it is not for everyone, but I do hope that it encourages discussion and learning."

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