It’s said so often that it’s a cliche: “If he just put as much work into his life as he does into that video game, he’d be a millionaire.”
Though this notion contains some truth, we recognize it as something of a straw man. Video games aren’t really like work. To take a typical example – I used to play Everquest (don’t look at me like that) when I was a teenager. In this game, the way you learned language was by standing next to another player using the language in question. By “hearing” enough, you would eventually comprehend. But this is not how actual language comprehension works. In real life, you have to think a little. Learning is partially hacking away at something, but largely it’s about reorganizing how you think.
But still, there is something to that cliche. Individuals invest hundreds of hours every year performing complex tasks, some of which (like the language lessons in Everquest) they don’t even find interesting. Many popular facebook games involve building simple communities to no obvious end. There seems to be a quirk of human behavior that allows us to grow addicted to simple games that involve designing systems that grow ever larger.
I suspect this has something to do with a feeling of “progress.” As someone who’s been lucky enough to run a successful small business, I know what it’s like to experience the progress of oneself in the real world. When it works (if it works!), it feels great, but that working takes years of incremental improvement. In a video game, you can experience the entire rise and fall of human history under your control with the a priori knowledge that the universe centers around you. Despite being able to check on my real live business’ progress, I’m still tempted by the idea of a business video game, due to that progress-as-an-emotion feeling.
Video game designers have capitalized on this feel by adding arbitrary point and merit badge systems. Even though these things are essentially meaningless, to a human being they feel validating.
Now, what if we could harness that feeling? Well, as some of you are already aware, this is being done already. But, I believe there are some flaws in design and scale. So, I thought I’d lay out a cool idea I had while taking a walk a few days ago.
I will elaborate in more detail on this concept during the next several sections, but the general idea is this: create a unified game for various types of crowdsource-style activity which benefit scientific research.
The game and activities don’t need to have anything in common. In the same way that WoW players don’t all have the same playing style, players of “ScienceVille,” could play a variety of types of games. The unifying factor is that the rewards are all given out in a single currency of points, merit badges, and virtual items.
ScienceVille would be a game with a single website, but playable through phone apps and facebook.
For the research, we’d have to locate particular types of experiments that could benefit from the help of large groups of people. Here are some ideas:
A) Simple games
Many scientific activities, particularly in biology, involve looking over images to pick out details. For example, counting the number of parasite eggs in a sample, or clicking the location of an animal in a series of video frames in order to watch movement, or watching a video of animals interacting to analyze behaviors (such as number of aggressive acts). Games like these could be made fun be adding a racing quality. We could see who can count parasite eggs the fastest, or who could analyze the most slides in the shortest time, or whose counts are most accurate.
Another common activity in biology is going through images to analyze facts about organisms, such as surface area, length, volume, etc. This is sometimes done by taking an image, selecting the area, and having a computer determine how much area is selected. This could be played in a similar way.
These are some obvious examples, but there are probably many more ways simple human behaviors could save researchers a lot of time and money.
These would be more complex games. A number of problems in science involve having a computer repeatedly solve puzzles. I’m not in deep on the math enough, but my understanding is that there are still many processes at which humans are more adept than algorithms.
Some possibilities include protein folding, taxonomy trees, and simple open math theorems.
The ideal puzzle game is one that is relatively simple, can be learned easily, and whose outcome can quickly be measure.
C) Games that require training
Some games could also be designed for “advanced” players. That is, people who don’t have the time or desire to be inside academia, but who have some expertise (or are willing to learn) in a certain area.
Some examples could be taxonomizing simple samples, quantifying animal behaviors, and doing statistical analysis.
D) Distributed Computing
Okay, this isn’t a game, but it’s still good. And, since it’s part of the unified game system, you’re still doing it for points.
E) Bonus Activity
For sociological/psych/economics studies, filling out surveys could be of great use.
Additionally, there are a lot of old documents that really need their data brought online. For example, just yesterday, Kelly was at the library going through a parasite data set from 1924! Not only is the data hard to get, but it has to be transcribed by her onto excel. If this could be done (again, for digital rewards), it would be useful for all sorts of scientific meta-anlaysis.
Lastly, we could also set up a micropayments system for scientists. A lot of scientists doing fieldwork need simple, relatively inexpensive devices, such as tags, test tubes, and software. A few hundred dollars isn’t much for a big community, but it’s a lot for a starving grad student.
F) Hands-on work
This is a little more pie in the sky, but there’s no reason some of the less skilled hands on work couldn’t be done by players for big points. For example, a trained fisherman might be very useful to a lake ecology sampling trip. Or, someone with minimal microscope training, might be able to go through images and take photos for a scientist.
Avoiding/Ameliorating Cheating and Abuse
In order for this to work, we must be assured that the data generated is valid. For example, in the counting games above, it’s easy to imagine someone clicking a thousand times randomly, declaring himself the winner, then collecting points.
Obviously, this is a problem. In order to be valid, the data needs to be at least as good as what a professional would’ve collected.
For puzzle games, this might not be a problem – the players are creating solutions which are either good or bad. But, for the aforementioned clicking games, we could use redundancy and statistical analysis.
For example, say we have 500 images of microscope slides for parasite egg counting. We could have professional scientists analyze 10 random slides. Then, start the game. Each slide would get a certain number of games played (say 20) before dumping in the pile. If the 20 are in rough agreement, we take a weighted average to determine what the actual number is.
For a particular slide that was also analyzed by a scientist, we do a comparison to see how big the error bars need to be. Presumably an experiment could be done to determine how accurate a particular game setup is compared to a real scientist. With enough redundancy, it seems reasonable to suppose the accuracy would be pretty solid.
Additionally, players caught cheating could be permanently banned.
A lot of the above might sound fanciful. In particular, like many ideas, it may seem to fail to bridge the gap between a cool idea and actual implementation. However, games like those mentioned above are already being done.
These games are reasonably fun, but I believe what they lack is a harnessing of the addictive property of progress-as-emotion.
Harnessing Addictiveness in a Broader Game
It is reasonable to suppose that these games and activities will not be as fun as the equivalent versions which are designed purely for amusement. However, there’s an addictiveness trade-off. If you play Angry Birds for 12 hours, at the end you probably feel like you’ve wasted time. If you play a science GWAP for 12 hours, you at least have the consolation of having supported something good.
In addition, you get points which can be spent on virtual goods, unlocking new game aspects, and achieving status in the virtual ScienceVille community.
Here are some ways the game might be made more addictive:
-Every day, you get SOME baseline amount of points. You get more for playing, but the baseline level will keep you coming back.
-Unify all games under one “currency,” so as to encourage the broadest range of activity
-Provide games which are just games, and not scientific puzzles. If they’re addictive enough, they can lure in players who wouldn’t normally be interested in the science games. Counterbalance their non-GWAP quality by making them provide far fewer points than other games.
Because this game would be philanthropic in nature, one can imagine reaching out to other more traditional games, like the various MMOs, to agreed to a shared digital currency market.
Scienceville could also provide basic educational services, such as access to material, discussion forums, and simple tests of understanding. These could be used as barriers to the “advanced” games in order to give them more mystique and fun.
In the last 20 years, video game designers have practically created a science of virtual incentives, with the result that simple games can be designed that keep humans engaged for hours. This is a powerful thing when you consider it. Imagine watching a sped-up video of a person playing Farmville. You’ll see someone looking at a sequence of simple images, moving his cursor, and tapping the occasional button. And yet people will play for hours and hours this way without growing bored. If we can use this quirk of human behavior to for better purposes, we could get access to literally millions of hours of scientific work, which would benefit professional scientists while promoting citizen science.
What do you think?