ProDE game opens the way to the world of directed evolution

Master’s students Lassi Vapaakallio and Laura Laakso constructed a game about last year's Millenium Technology Prize winner Frances Arnold’s directed evolution technology. The game was commissioned and funded by TAF, Technology Academy Finland.

“I think the game is pretty functional and intuitive visualization of Arnold's technology. ProDE demonstrates how games can be part of the popularization of science. It visualizes and makes a difficult subject to be understood in an interactive form. The player can try and investigate how different parameters affect”, says Assistant Professor Perttu Hämäläinen from Aalto University.

American biochemical engineer Frances Arnold, who received the Millennium Technology Prize last year, has developed a technology of directed evolution that mimics the natural choice in the laboratory. Thanks to this technology, many industrial fields can now replace the non-renewable and expensive raw material production with sustainable development and clean technology. Arnold's method is revolutionary because there is now a possibility to arbitrarily make mutations to the DNA structure of the desired gene, just as it happens in nature. Customized proteins can then be used to replace expensive or fossil-based production, for example in the manufacture of fuels, paper products, pharmaceuticals, textiles and agricultural chemicals. The method has already resulted in more efficient processes for making numerous medicines, including a treatment for type 2 diabetes.

The task given by the Academy of Technology was to seek out a story-based experience of the impact of directed evolution, in the means of game and virtual reality technologies. The aim was also to inspire young people to study science and contribute into making the world a better place with the use of technology. The task was difficult for the students, as it did little to give a concrete idea what kind of experience the game should offer. "On the other hand, this was perhaps a good thing, as we got pretty free hands. The requirements were quite hard in relation to game production and team size, but as the project progressed, the goals focused on the most essential, "say Laakso and Vapaakallio.

Multidisciplinarity helping out in designing the game

Both students have a background in biosciences as well as in game development, so it was easy to get oriented in articles about directed evolution. They found that the method had a lot of elements suitable for the game. The challenge, however, was to bring them in the game intelligibly and elegantly. The students wanted to make the game as simple as possible but also easily approachable. Initially, they wondered what kind of interaction the game should offer. It was considered important that the players themselves could make a directed evolution, even though the game could only provide a simplified version of it. The idea was that directed evolution has the main part in the game, and its various stages are well visible. The challenge was how to make the game approachable and at the same time informative - so that the player would learn Arnold's method while learning to play the game.

Some help was unexpectedly close, a few years back. Vapaakallio had previously made a game prototype, in which the player can refine different looking trees step by step in the direction he or she wants. The idea Vapaakallio had got of Richard Dawkins’ book Blind Watchmaker, written thirty years ago. The prototype acted as a good inspiration and as a starting point for the development of the game. "Directed evolution sounded very similar to this method, and the DNA simulated in the game works like my original prototype. It was also interesting to note how surprisingly one can come across the previous field of study; while studying art and games I ended up in orienting myself again with biotechnology and proteins, but from a new perspective", says Vapaakallio.

Laakso has done a Bachelor's thesis on visualization of molecules, so for her it was a fun challenge to visualize the proteins in the game. In ProDE the functioning mechanism of proteins is presented as clearly as possible with different characters and colors. Laakso’s aim was also to present the method of directed evolution as visually as possible, so that only a little or no text would be needed to understand the game. "I wanted to design the game interface so that the steps of the method and its cycle would be as intuitive as possible for the player. In addition, I wanted to create a "gentle scifi" mood in the game. We decided to use a lot of circular shapes and to guide the player to go through the method in a circle point by point - and it seems to work pretty well, "says Laakso.

According to the game designers, the game may seem to be complicated in the beginning, but after a while of playing the players seem to learn the basics of directed evolution. "We heard from Frances Arnold how she is taking risks in the early stages of the process, making a lot of mutations to the proteins, and reducing them the closer she gets to the target. Many players have come up to do exactly the same, even though the game does not exactly tell you to do so”, the students say.

Game development and design have been made throughout the process together by Vapaakallio, who did the programming and Laakso, who made the graphics. Composer Matti Strahlendorff is responsible for the sound of the game. There have also been several specialists from both Aalto University and TAF participating in the process. ProDE was presented at Tekniikan Päivät event in Otaniemi in September. Future plans and distribution are currently under discussion with the Academy of Technology. So far, the game can be explored and played on a few iPads in Dipoli, Otaniemi.

The Millennium Technology Prize is a Finnish award for top technology innovation and was awarded the seventh time last year. It is awarded biannually by the Technology Academy Finland. The prize is one million euros.

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