Better research through video games

Simon Parkin at the New Yorker:”… it occurred to Szantner and Revaz that the tremendous amount of time and energy that people put into games could be co-opted in the name of human progress. That year, they founded Massively Multiplayer Online Science, a company that pairs game makers with scientists.

This past March, the first fruits of their conversation in Geneva appeared in EVE Online, a complex science-fiction game set in a galaxy composed of tens of thousands of stars and planets, and inhabited by half a million or so people from across the Internet, who explore and do battle daily. EVE was launched in 2003 by C.C.P., a studio based in Reykjavík, but players have only recently begun to contribute to scientific research. Their task is to assist with the Human Protein Atlas (H.P.A.), a Swedish-run effort to catalogue proteins and the genes that encode them, in both normal tissue and cancerous tumors. “Humans are, by evolution, very good at quickly recognizing patterns,” Emma Lundberg, the director of the H.P.A.’s Subcellular Atlas, a database of high-resolution images of fluorescently dyed cells, told me. “This is what we exploit in the game.”

The work, dubbed Project Discovery, fits snugly into EVE Online’s universe. At any point, players can take a break from their dogfighting, trading, and political machinations to play a simple game within the game, finding commonalities and differences between some thirteen million microscope images. In each one, the cell’s innards have been color-coded—blue for the nucleus (the cell’s brain), red for microtubules (the cell’s scaffolding), and green for anywhere that a protein has been detected. After completing a tutorial, players tag the image using a list of twenty-nine options, including “nucleus,” “cytoplasm,” and “mitochondria.” When enough players reach a consensus on a single image, it is marked as “solved” and handed off to the scientists at the H.P.A. “In terms of the pattern recognition and classification, it resembles what we are doing as researchers,” Lundberg said. “But the game interface is, of course, much cooler than our laboratory information-management system. I would love to work in-game only.”

Rather than presenting the project as a worthy extracurricular activity, EVE Online’s designers have cast it as an extension of the game’s broader fiction. Players work for the Sisters of EVE, a religious humanitarian-aid organization, which rewards their efforts with virtual currency. This can be used to purchase items in the game, including a unique set of armor designed by one of the C.C.P.’s artists, Andrei Cristea. (The armor is available only to players who participate in Project Discovery, and therefore, like a rare Coco Chanel frock, is desirable as much for its scarcity as for its design.) Insuring that the mini-game be thought of as more than a short-term novelty or diversion was an issue that Linzi Campbell, Project Discovery’s lead designer, considered carefully. “The hardest challenge has been turning the image-analysis process into a game that is strong enough to motivate the player to continue playing,” Campbell told me. “The fun comes from the feeling of mastery.”

Evidently, her efforts were successful. On the game’s first day of release, there were four hundred thousand submissions from players. According to C.C.P., some people have been so caught up in the task that they have played for fifteen hours without interruption. “EVE players turned out to be a perfect crowd for this type of citizen science,” Lundberg said. She anticipates that the first phase of the project will be completed this summer. If the work meets this target, players will be presented with more advanced images and tasks, such as the classification of protein patterns in complex tumor-tissue samples. Eventually, their efforts could aid in the development of new cancer drugs….(More)”