Thursday, September 21, 2017

How playing games can advance science

In this response, Claire Baert describes her fascination with citizen science games and poses some questions about the practice.

This morning, like most days, I woke up early, had a latte, turned on my computer and opened Gamasutra. Like most days, I'm looking for articles discussing how games can help advance scientific research. But this morning, for the first time, I found the article I was waiting for. A blog post by Sande Chen, featured by Gamasutra, and [re]titled: Why designers should embrace 'citizen science' . This was the trigger for me to start this blog, to write about citizen science games and share my passion with the Gamasutra community. In this first post, I will introduce many of the citizen science games everyone can play to advance science, and briefly introduce the different topics I will cover in the next posts.

My story with citizen science games began in 2013, in a small game studio in the UK. I was researching free to play, casual browser games, and was doing a quick play through the tutorials. Between Farmerama and Grepolis, I had listed a game I had never heard of: Foldit. First surprise, it's a client game. Second surprise, I'm taught how to mutate a protein to form more hydrogen bonds, not that casual. Third surprise, I'm doing real science. (Fourth surprise, first thing I did when coming back home was downloading Foldit on my laptop.)

I quickly became fascinated with the concept of citizen science games and started searching more of them. Not any kind of serious games, but specifically games that allow us, players, to contribute to authentic scientific research, without any scientific background. Games in which we provide valuable scientific data, accelerate research by analysing data, or solve complex scientific problems. Games that help diagnosis and cure diseases or that can answer important scientific questions.

After learning how to fold proteins in Foldit, I learnt how to fold RNA molecules in EteRNA and DNA molecules in Phylo. By playing these puzzle games, we are helping eradicate diseases. On my phone, I shoot at parasites in MalariaSpot to diagnose malaria in blood smear, I'm growing a microbe colony for Colony B. I'm mapping the brain in Eyewire and Mozak, advancing the field of neuroscience. I also dared join the quantum computing field, moving quantum atoms in Quantum Moves, optimising quantum algorithms in the prototype of meQuanics and solving quantum error corrections in Decodoku. All these steps are important to build quantum computers. Recently I've been showing off my navigation skills (ahem) in Sea Hero Quest, (and in VR!), to provide data to scientists researching dementia. With almost 3 million players, Sea Hero Quest is the largest dementia study in history.

Screenshot from Sea Hero Quest -VR
I loved the concept of citizen science games so much that about 2 years ago, I launched a website dedicated to them. It's called… well… Citizen Science Games. For the content, I contacted many scientists and journalists, which led to the opportunity to join one of the team. I am now bringing my experience from the game industry to Stall Catchers, in which we annotate blood vessels to help answering questions about Alzheimer's disease.

Scientists have started harnessing our love for games to conduct scientific research, sometimes on their own, sometimes with game designers and developers. As Sande Chen reported in her post, they have been using different design approaches: integration, gamification and separation. Most of the games mentioned above are examples of integration. The gameplay was designed around a scientific problem. Stall Catchers uses game elements: we get points, accuracy feedback, climb leader boards and participate in punctual competitions. To illustrate the separation approach, I will use the example of EVE Online. EVE Online is the first (and only) mainstream games that integrated real citizen science activities, Project Discovery, to the game. We are looking for exoplanets by analysing luminosity measurements of stars. By reaching more than one million contributions in one day, Project Discovery became one of the most successful online citizen science project. This is also one of the rare citizen science game having a few articles on Gamasutra, which recently covered the launch of the second round of Project Discovery and an awesome GDC talk by CCP and MMOS.

Project Discovery
There is an increasing number of citizen science games. They generate tangible results and publications and can lead to important discoveries. Scientists write about design, mechanics, difficulties, pitfalls, discoveries, results, recommendations. They try to understand what motivates people to engage with these games. There is also some controversies. Do games attract or retain participants in citizen science project? Shall citizen science be gamified? Are games compatible with serious and rigorous traditional scientific research?  All these questions find some answers in papers and will be discussed in future posts.

How could more studios embrace the concept? What scientific problems could be brought to existing games? What game genre would be best fitted for citizen science projects? What would be the best ways to integrate them? By starting this blog, I'm hoping to raise awareness about citizen science games. I'm also hoping to establish contact and start discussions with designers and developers interested in the genre.

And finally, I'm a big fan of this quote so I have to share it. It was written by Dara Mohammadi who was a scientific adviser on Sea Hero Quest:
"As a planet we spend 3 billion hours a week playing online games. If even a fraction of that time can be harnessed for science, laboratories around the world would have access to some rather impressive cognitive machinery."
 [This article originally appeared on Claire Baert's blog on Gamasutra.]

Claire Baert has 10 years experience in the video game industry and now focuses on citizen science games. She launched in 2016.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Upcoming Sept Class: Designing Games For Impact

Next week, on September 20, I will be holding another workshop through PlayCrafting NYC called Designing Games For Impact. While I have explored issues of concern to social impact games in past classes, my primary research focus has been broader and more centered on deepening emotional impact and meaningfulness in games.  I relate findings from related disciplines like advertising, cinematography, and social psychology.  Thus, I believe these classes are of interest not only to serious game developers but to entertainment game developers.

As I mentioned, I was interviewed for the book, Empower Yourself Through Your Memories: Use the Lessons From Your Past to Create a Happy Present and Future by Frank Healy.  Healy, a counselor and life coach, has helped people deal with traumatic memories.

These emotional memories from one's life can also be tapped for stronger narrative.  If you can learn to access the emotion from a past event, then you convey the same emotion in a fictional story.  The focus of the next class will be on using personal autobiographical elements to create an emotional connection.

As always, Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development, offers Early Bird tickets, but if they sell out (and they have in the past), you'll have to pay full price.  

The details!
Designing Games For Impact
Date: Wednesday, September 20
Time: 6:30-8:30 PM

About Me 

Sande Chen is the co-author of Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform. As a serious games consultant, she helps companies harness the power of video games for non-entertainment purposes. Her career as a writer, producer, and game designer has spanned over 15 years in the game industry. Her game credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus, MMO Hall of Fame inductee Wizard101, and the 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. She has spoken at conferences around the globe, including the Game Developers Conference, Game Education Summit, SXSW Interactive, Serious Play Conference, and the Serious Games Summit D.C.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Citizen Science and Knowledge Games

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses the concept of citizen science, and how it can be embraced by game designers.

On Monday, August 21, 2017, residents of the contiguous United States witnessed a total solar eclipse for the first time since 1979.  Because of the rarity of the occurrence, which will not occur again in the U.S. until 2024,  hundreds bought special eclipse glasses to watch, but some members of the public, as citizen scientists, aided in scientific research by sending temperature data to NASA or by recording animal behavior in a citizen science app like iNaturalist. Amateur photographers contributed to a time-lapse photo spread of the eclipse. Through the combined efforts of researchers and the public, a large amount of data was able to be collected about the total solar eclipse.

Total solar eclipse August 2017
Citizen science, which engages the public to participate in scientific research, is not a new practice.  Communities of citizen scientists have been active in mapping the stars, counting butterflies, watching birds, and monitoring coral reefs.  Could such communities be galvanized as game players, who through the process of playing games further scientific knowledge?  Associate Professor Karen Schrier, Founding Director of the Games & Emerging Media program at Marist College, asks this very question and more in her book, Knowledge Games.


FoldIt, the protein folding puzzle game, is the most well-known example of this type of game. As documented in the article, "FoldIt Gamers Solve Riddle of HIV Enzyme Within 3 Weeks," the results from FoldIt players has led to scientific breakthroughs, research papers, and in improvements to AI algorithms. Yep, it turns out humans are better than computers at solving certain types of puzzles, especially those requiring intuition and a basis in cultural understanding.

In the past, I had an interesting challenge:  to design a game to generate data about obesity rates and general health indicators over a period of a year.  The project at first had more of a gamification focus and then morphed into the ARG Lumeria.  It provided insights on designing and writing for wearable technology, which would serve as the main way of data collection.  But Schrier argues that these games are more than just about gathering data, but about increasing knowledge, which is why she uses the term, knowledge games, instead of other terms like "crowdsourced games" or "citizen science games."  Data needs to be contextualized, analyzed, and interpreted.  Games like Happy Moths and Galaxy Zoo, which involve classification and categorization of images, do seem to be more about data sets, but as mentioned above, FoldIt and experiments like bullying sim SchoolLife have demonstrated that the intuition shown in human thought processes may be used to improve algorithms or model behavior.

At present, there appears to be three design approaches for knowledge games.
  • Gamification  -  In games like Happy Moths, players receive scores based on tasks.  The common highlights of gamification are present: leaderboards, high scores, badges, game elements rather than gameplay.
  • Separation - In some games, like Reverse the Odds, the gameplay is separate from the knowledge-producing task. Instead, players in Reverse the Odds classify cancerous cells in order to earn potions to continue or better gameplay. 
  • Integration - In games like FoldIt, the gameplay is essential to the knowledge-producing task. FoldIt players use the same tools as scientists would, but that is not necessarily the case. In Play to Cure: Genes in Space, players pilot a spaceship and by doing so in an optimal way, DNA microarrays from breast cancer research are analyzed. However, Schrier states that not all of these games are integrated fully or well, which may make the game feel like a construct, or wrapper, for the knowledge-producing task.
Besides the design of knowledge games, Schrier tackles many issues in her book concerning knowledge games, including the ethics of possibly profiting from such volunteerism (would they be player laborers?), or even the ethics of creating such games since they may not even be created for social good. Do knowledge games need to promote social change?  There is also concern over who exactly is contributing and playing and if this "wisdom of the crowds" is acceptable.  "What if," Schrier muses, "players work through the possible scenarios to tribal peace in The SUDAN Game, and the resulting finding is that two of the tribes need to be decimated?" These are interesting questions for interesting times.  We may need to continue our exploration into knowledge games by creating more knowledge games.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.