What if there were a way for actions taken in a video game to have real world consequences? When some people and organizations think of gaming-reality connections, thoughts lurch towards violent copycat acts (he learned that behavior from the game!), or decreased social interactions (those games are taking up all of her time). But some scientists are exploring ways for gamers to participate in their processes.
In short, we’re seeing the beginnings of crowd-sourced research.
It started with two European buddies: the Hungarian entrepreneur Atilla Szanter, and Bernard Revaz, a Swiss physics researcher. The two realized that gaming could edge humanity towards a more productive society if they could somehow convert seemingly inconsequential game interactions into meaningful real world action. And so was born Massively Multiplayer Online Science, a firm that matches game developers to scientists.
EVE Online presents itself as a perfect example. It’s a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) set in the farthest reaches of outer space, where hundreds of thousands of players connect and do battle on a terrifically expansive galactic scale. But now, gamers aren’t just dog fighting in sleek spacecraft— they’re assisting with the cataloging and encoding of (real) human proteins. This is possible via a game-within-a-game, where an otherwise unattractive activity is woven into the very fabric of the in-game universe. In the virtual world, players are performing a humanitarian service (and rewarded with virtual currency), but in real life, they are detecting patterns in biological cells. The data is given to researchers at the Human Protein Atlas, and makes an otherwise tiresome task among a select group of researchers engaging to a wider audience.
The process of making chore-like activities “fun” is not without its limits. Many of us learned as children that when we made “games” of cleaning our rooms or washing the dishes, we quickly tired of such mundane activity. However, as Simon Parker notes for The New Yorker, rote tasks are perfectly at home within the context of gaming. Often times, the biggest in-game achievements rely on a series of repetitive tasks that already rely on what feels like a laborious process. The term “grinding” refers to performing the same task over and over again for the sake of increasing a character’s abilities or strength. It’s not super-exciting, but the payoffs for players allows them to take on new worlds and challenges.
Further applications of this kind of crowd-sourced research remain to be seen, but it’s so far a pretty neat way to connect seemingly unrelated activities in the pursuit of a productive end goal.