A game of nerves

22 March 2012

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Our new game Axon is now live. It accompanies our new exhibition,  Brains: The Mind as Matter, which opens next week. In this fast-paced game, you must click on protein targets to grow your neuron, connecting new brain regions. Climb through the tissue, outcompeting rival neurons to form the longest connection you can.

Where our last game, High Tea, explored the history and culture of drugs with this one we wanted to get closer to the science. The ‘Brains’ exhibition provided just the right opportunity. We began the process last year, when we sat down with guest exhibition curator Marius Kwint, neuroscientist Richard Wingate and Phil Stuart and Chris Cox from Preloaded for a day of instense collaboration. We wanted to see if we could find a way to ‘play the brain’. Richard and Marius spent the morning showing us the neuroscience (including the extraordinary video of a foetal chick’s neurons forming that you’ll find in the game), and then in the afternoon Phil and Chris explained the structure of casual games and the relationship between goal, jeopardy and score. We discussed the role of competition in forming connections in the brain, and looked at other games whose aesthetic seemed to reflect what we’d seen in the video.

We knew we were onto something, and so the process of development began. This kind of collaboration is key to how we make games: marrying the creativity and imagination of a games agency like Preloaded with the knowledge and critical thinking of scientists and exhibition curators. The result is (we hope) games that genuinely spur engagement with the concepts and ideas embedded within them. We’re particularly proud that Axon contains 27 different links to Wikipedia pages describing different kinds of neurons. Your high score could be just the start of a journey of discovery into how the brain works.

We’re very interested in how games work, and so we’re watching our Google Analytics, conducting a survey (just follow the link from the game) and undertaking interviews and analysis of responses to the game. Further down the line we hope to be publishing an evaluation of Axon, showing what we’ve learned from it, as we did with our evaluation of High Tea. And at Museums and the Web this year, we’ll be presenting a paper on evaluating games, co-authored with colleagues at the Science Museum and the Space Science Institute. The Wellcome Trust is also interested in supporting gaming as a medium through grants and awards for  ideas that bring biomedical science stories to life, as this article in Wired explains.

The game launches to major gaming portals including Kongregate and Newgrounds  this weekend, where hopefully it will find an audience keen to both play a gripping game and find out more about neuroscience. Play Axon now and see how long you can grow your neuron.