neon pink and blue shapes with Lucy's headshot on the left
Lucy Merrett, Music Production Graduate and Cyber Choices Challenge soundtrack producer

How Astro the Android changed my life (and could change yours)

‘Everything’s moved so quickly, I’ve had to remind myself it’s really happening,’ says Lucy Merrett, who made the pounding electronic soundtrack for Cyber Security Challenge’s educational game Astro the Android.

Lucy offered to make the soundtrack for free as part of her undergraduate course in music production at Leeds Conservatoire, and the game’s electronic beats attracted the attention of a top British game studio who have since offered her a part-time job.

The game was produced by CSC UK in partnership with the National Crime Agency (NCA) as part of the first Cyber Choices Challenge: a follow-up, the Winter Cyber Choices Challenge, runs from 20 November 2023 until the end of the winter term (closes 2359GMT Sunday 17 December 2023).

Lucy’s cyberpunk-inspired beats were an instant hit with the game’s target audience: school-age children learning about online risks and how to stay safe.

‘The kids loved it,’ she says. ‘Some of the feedback we got from teachers was that the kids were blasting it loudly in class and the teachers had to say, “Guys, calm down a bit, this is an educational experience, it’s not a rave in the classroom.”’

‘Such a great experience’

Thanks to her experience designing the game, Lucy opted to specialise in video game music, and is now studying for a Master’s degree in music for interactive games at Leeds Beckett.

She is also starting work as the Sound Design Department Assistant at PitStop Productions, a top British game audio studio who cast, directed and captured all 248 voice actors for the role-playing epic Baldur’s Gate 3 which has sold 10 million units on Steam alone since it came out this year.

‘Doing the Cyber Choices Challenge was a massive part of me getting the job,’ says Lucy. ‘If I hadn’t explored that world of game music and sound design, I wouldn’t be doing the Master’s course, either.’

Lucy heard about the Cyber Choices Challenge project through her father, Alan Merrett, Senior Officer in the National Cybercrime Unit at the National Crime Agency, and knew it was the perfect opportunity for part of her undergrad course in music production where she was required to collaborate with another creative. Lucy says that she was passionate about the project and helping to steer young people away from cybercrime because she is very close to her Dad. So, she offered to work with the game’s developer, computing lecturer Zayd Dawood.

The game is a Mario-style platformer in a futuristic landscape which teaches young people the basics of Britain’s Computer Misuse Act 1990. Astro explores a two-dimensional cyberpunk world, and until Lucy got involved, Zayd had planned to use bland, royalty-free music available online.

‘They were trying to develop a game that could educate kids in school about staying safe online,’ says Merrett. ‘I thought this would work really well as my final project. It was such a great experience.’

‘There can be a different path’

Lucy and Zayd exchanged emails, and she suggested that a techno vibe might fit with the game, where Astro explores factory-like cyberpunk landscapes while learning lessons about cybercrime. Lucy researched by looking at similar games, and then listened to different techno artists for inspiration.

Using Ableton Live (software favoured by techno producers) Lucy made different tracks for each of the game’s four levels, over the course of four months.

‘It was right over the winter: it was quite intense,’ she remembers. ‘It was a lot of writing music, a lot of heavy techno electronic stuff.’

‘Lucy admits that she went into the project ‘blind’, having no experience of sound design or game music. She says, ‘I just did what I thought felt right, knowing that kids were going to be playing it.’

She says that creating music tracks which evolve slowly with the game sparked her creativity, as did the game’s purpose. Lucy says that in her own experience, she is aware that among people her age, there ‘can be a different path’ where people can be tempted into hacking and cybercrime, and was keen to help the NCA get the message across.

Lucy says she had been interested in music since a very young age, playing cornet in the Warrington Youth Orchestra, but was drawn to electronic music production because she didn’t enjoy being in the spotlight. When it came to soundtracking Astro, pounding electronic beats were a natural choice: Lucy says she has always had a passion for the heavier end of electronic music, having started to listen to dubstep artists like Skrillex when she was 10.

She says that the job offer from PitStop Productions came as a surprise, after she applied on impulse earlier this year.

She told the studio she was doing a Master’s, and they amended the role so she could do both, she says. ‘They couldn’t have been more accommodating. Every so often, I think, “Oh my gosh!”, but it’s just great.’

The Winter Cyber Choices Challenge 2023 runs from Monday 20 November until 17 December 2023, offering weeks of great gadget prizes for winners who make the right Cyber Choices. Click here to learn more.

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Hannah Tufts, exhale global founder and CSCUK Non-Executive Director

Delivering the Winter Cyber Choices Challenge feels like a win for me – are you in it to win this year’s awesome prizes?

‘Being involved in the educational side of cyber security is one of the most rewarding parts of my job’, says exhale global agency founder and Cyber Security Challenge UK veteran, Hannah Tufts.

Joining the industry ‘completely by chance’, Hannah started out working on cyber security awareness campaigns for large organisations in the UK, and quickly became fascinated by the psychology around cyber risk and cyber crime.

‘I’ve always been focused on culture and people’s behaviour,’ she says. ‘I got interested in the psychology of cyber security, and all the behaviours that are part of our routines: like how we behave on social media, and how that could potentially expose your or your company to an attack.’

Hannah says she is living proof of how people from non-technical educational backgrounds can thrive in the sector – supporting CSCUK’s mission to bring fresh talent into the industry is one of the most rewarding things she gets to do, between growing her agency business and being mum to two girls under 5.

For Hannah, leading on the project plan, budget, and marketing deliverables for the Winter Cyber Choices Challenge 2023 is more than client work, it’s a real privilege – because ultimately it’s an incredible opportunity to nurture cyber talent. This year, she is particularly excited about the amount of investment put into materials to support teachers connect their students in the classroom with the educational side of the Winter Cyber Choices Challenge with ready-made computer science content, including lesson plans and a guide for teachers, that’ll keep things exciting right up until the end of the Winter 2023 term.

Hannah says, ‘I’m hopeful that schools will get quite competitive between their own year groups, as well as with the other participants playing from all over the UK and all over the world who will be on our leaderboards.’

Creating careers

In the years she has worked in cybersecurity marketing, Hannah explains that the subject has become ‘much more mainstream’.

‘As a grad back in 2010, I had to research news stories about breaches and related cyber security topics,’ she remembers, ‘It was honestly quite hard to find new stuff each week. It used to be quite niche, and now it’s blown up into this huge, global industry which offers so many different career paths.

Hannah’s professional life means that she hears awe-inspiring stories all the time about how people from both technical and non-technical backgrounds have ended up in the industry. She says she hopes to inspire people to enter the field, either by studying STEM subjects or by using creative talents.

‘Cybersecurity is perceived as a very technical field, but there is another side to it: communication’, Hannah says.

‘Anyone who is a strong communicator who also understands the subject matter can translate the technical stuff into language that anyone can understand – and that’s what’s most needed to keep society safe online.’

‘Sometimes you need to be quite original and creative, that’s the part I love the most, and where my English Literature degree comes in handy!’

Inspiring women

Hannah often engages in activities designed to inspire more women to pursue careers in cyber security.

Life has become a lot easier for women in cybersecurity, Hannah says, and it goes far beyond organisations hiring to ‘tick a diversity box’.

She says, ‘There are so many female-led networks and professional networks that you can be a part of that will really help you, guide you and champion you throughout your whole career path.’

Hannah joined Cyber Security Challenge UK in 2018 as a marketing freelancer. After a series of changes to the CSCUK business model, Hannah was invited to step up as a Non-Executive Director, meanwhile her growing team continues to provide content marketing services to the Challenge.

She says, ‘You just never know with the opportunities that you have in cyber security. Things can turn into something much bigger than you’re anticipating: that is definitely what happened to me!’

Take part in the Winter Cyber Choices Challenge 2023 – the competition end at 23:59 on Sunday 17 December 2023.