Under the auspices of London’s Science Museum John Pugh, director of digital at Boehringer Ingelheim and brainchild of the Syrum game, launched his company’s newest offering to the world.

The game has been heavily delayed by around a year, and the launch on 13 September was in fact just for beta testing, with the finished product not expected to go live for some months, and will not be available in the US in any form until next year.

But what is the game? In a nutshell, it is a simulator of the pharma industry’s drug development process. The game is very similar to Zynga’s popular Facebook game Farmville, but just swaps farms and crops for laboratories and molecules.

Gamers play as an R&D pharma company that has to develop drugs and put them into clinical trials, mimicking the real industry process. And there are social media aspects to Syrum, as players can link up with their Facebook friends and give them gifts - these can then be used to customise their offices and laboratories.

Players can also trade and collaborate to help create better compounds, but on the flipside they also have the option to steal their competitors’ staff and compounds to get ahead.

Promoting science

Speaking to PharmaTimes at the event, Pugh says Syrum is about promoting science, innovation and the pharma R&D process to the public, who are not always aware of how much time and effort goes into making new medicines.

But what’s in it for Boehringer? Pugh says: “Boehringer spends a lot of money on disease awareness campaigns for doctors and for the public. We’ve used traditional methods for years but we’re now trying to use more digital.

“So my concept is that gaming is one of the most effective way for people to learn – when you’re a kid, you play games, in education, there are gaming methods entrenched into learning programmes, but we’ve never brought that into the medical or pharma realm.”

He said pharma has tried things before – such as using Pac Man style platform games where a white blood cell eats bacteria, but that this was too limited. He says using social games like Syrum is a big step forward, because it is more engaging and can be shared by, potentially, millions of people.

The plan was to use Syrum as a vehicle for some of Boehringer’s disease awareness campaigns such as Drive COPD and 1 Million 1 Stroke, but Pugh said the beta version will not carry any Boehringer campaigns.

Instead the beta version will start with a disease the gamer must tackle, and by playing the level the user will learn more about the condition - but it will not necessarily be a illness that Boehringer caters for.

As the user progresses through the game they will also learn about counterfeiting – a major problem for many pharma firms – the complexity of drug patents and the process behind clinical trials.

Pugh says users will also learn about the high levels of money that has to be re-invested in the drug pipeline in order to make new medicines. “We don’t say this explicitly,” Pugh explains, “But it’s inherent in the game.”

He says that the reputation of the pharma industry is not as bad as it was, but concedes that it’s ‘not great’. “A lot of people think that pharma’s goal is just to make profits, but if you look at how much the industry spends and how complicated the R&D process is, it really doesn’t boil down to making money.

“I don’t think Syrum will single-handedly raise the profile of the industry to the public, but I think it will play its part, and that’s its purpose.”

The game is now being beta tested here: http://www.syrum-game.com/ and will be available on Facebook - Pugh asks that anyone using game to give the company feed back toward its final version.