Drug Development: Let’s Play!

3/21/13

My 9-year-old son is addicted to “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube.  You watch videos that take you through level after level of a video game, giving you a preview of what’s to come, or, in my case, a peek at a level I’ll never be skilled enough to reach.  Stupid Bowser.  But anyway.  This is just a small example of how games have permeated our lives.

Here’s another: late last year Boehringer Ingelheim made a splash by releasing a Facebook game, Syrum.  In the game, which combines aspects of trading card games and building games like Farmville, players try to develop drugs.  They can compete or collaborate with friends as they try to get their drugs to market.  A big question Boehringer Ingelheim faced, though, was Why?  It seemed incongruous for a Pharma company to put out a game. What was in it for them?

John Pugh, Boehringer’s Director of Digital, says it’s more than just PR and sees it as a platform that can expand beyond the initial iteration; it could create a new venue for conversation between Boehringer and its stakeholders.  He’s also suggested that “it becomes a problem solving platform, an educational platform and an engagement platform.”  Therein I think lies the real hope for Boehringer:  that by engaging enough people in the game the players will discover the strategy(ies) that will help pharma survive in an increasingly difficult and competitive business environment.

How would this work?  Take a step back and ask what games and game-like elements in the workplace are good for.  It’s already recognized that adding game-like elements to mundane tasks like training can increase participation, engagement and retention.  I just went though the most enjoyable health and safety training of my research career in which our trainer framed the exercise as a round of Jeopardy.  But people involved in Serious Games know there are more potential payoffs for adding game-like elements to a wide variety of industries.

Beyond training, there are three areas I see games as aiding drug discovery.  The first, and one that’s gotten a fair amount of attention over the past few years, is the use of research games like Foldit, eteRNA, and Phylo for biological discovery.  These games tap into the interests of tens of thousands of players to tackle real-life problems like protein- and RNA-folding, and DNA alignments.  They utilize elements like leaderboards, forums, feedback and a sense of purpose.  You can get bragging rights over your friends and help cure HIV!  These games are solving difficult problems in biology without the need for formal scientific training among its participants.  It’s not hard to see how companies facing problems like solving the structure of a potential target or optimizing the fold of a therapeutic siRNA could benefit from a collaboration with these research game designers.

The second area for games relates to Syrum–or what I suspect it’s being used for, anyway.  The information about how people play games may turn out to be an extremely rich vein of creativity and innovation.  As Andrew Phelps at the Rochester Institute of Technology has described, watching people play games demonstrates just how innovative people can get when faced with a constrained environment but a strong desire to accomplish an objective.  They’ll do things like repeatedly killing themselves in an adventure game so they can lay their bodies out to spell short messages to their friends when normal writing materials aren’t available (bodies often take a while to disappear, and you often re-enter a game at the same place you died).

I haven’t played Syrum yet–it’s Europe only right now, and also I’ve not yet fallen into the Facebook vortex. But given Syrum’s reported complexity, it sounds like Boehringer has added a lot of elements that reflect real challenges in drug development, discovery through launch.  I suspect Boehringer is storing every move made by every player–every alliance, every virtual hire, every step forward, sideways and backwards–and will mine that data continuously for strategies on how the process of drug development could be done better.  They’ll track the best players, and maybe even offer them jobs.  They’ll also continue tweaking the parameters.  Boehringer has said they want to launch different versions for different parts of the world.  I would bet some of the key variations will reflect the very different regulatory environments faced in different countries. Winners in one area may end up with very different strategies from winners in another.  So by mining the data, Boehringer also prepares itself for different scenarios.

There’s a reason the military invests heavily into various kinds of games and simulations. Military history is a stark reminder of the uncertainties of combat (after all, all it takes is one nail).  War games have been around for centuries.  Now, in an increasingly complex world, it’s even more important to simulate as many possibilities as is reasonable, to increase the odds that when the unplanned happens (and it will happen), the commander or soldier or chief executive or manager will have seen something like it before.  Drug developers (or any industry, really) are also subject to uncertainties, forces outside of their control and would benefit from a greater exploration of possibilities–the proverbial Black Swans–and how to react to them.  As an example, a recent article in the Financial Times describes some nice examples of how online adventure games are providing useful venues for observing and testing economic theories.

The last area where I see games as useful for drug development has to do more with behavioral psychology and the environment we live in.  Drug development benefits from the large number of scientists involved.  Not to generalize too much, but many of us are Geeks.  And, as described by Ken Denmead in his great Geek Dad books, a Geek is at that perfect intersection between Knowledgeability, Obsessiveness and (some) Social Skills.  Because of this, scientists tend to be smart, engaged in their work, and often willing to work far beyond normal working hours because it’s all just so darn interesting!  But still.  Having a laser-like focus on work takes a lot of mental energy.  Games can make that easier.

Many people are familiar with the concept of Flow, proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.  The characteristics of Flow–engagement, satisfaction, positivity, optimal performance–coincidentally are many of the same characteristics one sees in people playing great games.  I would argue that by incorporating more games and game-like elements into our research, we will tap into a more efficient, engaged and productive workforce.

I can’t stress the engagement part enough.  We live in an age of endless distraction. People are never out of Internet contact.  Ever.  If they tell you they are, they’re lying.  Attention has become one of the most valuable commodities in the workplace.  Creating an environment that increases engagement through incorporating game-like elements raises a bulwark against distractions and makes a more efficient, focused and effective workforce.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get my son to help–I mean, help my son get Bowser out of that castle…

Kyle Serikawa works as a Senior Research Scientist in Genomics for Novo Nordisk. He is a recent graduate and current board member for Leadership Tomorrow in Seattle. The views expressed on this post are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of Novo Nordisk. Follow @

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