With 45 years behind me and with a little boy in my arms, I can hardly call myself young anymore. But I consider myself lucky to be a member of the first generation that grew up with video games.
I was born in the Eastern Block, in Hungary, and back then access to new technology from behind the Iron Curtain was not easy. I vividly remember when on a visit to an emigrated uncle in Western Germany my parents bought me my first Commodore 64. To prove to them that it was not a nonsense investment, right that day in Munich I wrote a little program – I printed out an image of a hot-air balloon with characters and put it into a loop – so an endless queue of balloons flew up the screen. My parents were super proud of me. But that was the last time I coded anything on that C64 and my long years of endless gaming sessions began.
While I am sure my parents saw through my little balloon trick, they never complained and they learned with time that the purchase was one of their best investments. Playing non-stop with Wizard of Wor and the like became the foundation for my awe and enthusiasm about computers, technology and games, and later led me to start my own software development company.
We never thought of games as something weird, nerdy or destructive. While some today immediately look to video games as a scapegoat whenever there is a tragic campus shooting in the U.S., we have always looked at games not only as a form of legitimate entertainment but as the most complex modern art-from.
During the last couple of decades, the use of games went beyond entertainment and art, with people using games as an engaging medium to achieve other beneficial goals. These new games were powered by gamification and led to the rise of serious games, educational games, social impact games and several other genres. These games were designed to make activities traditionally considered not to be fun, more engaging and entertaining. Take Chore Wars, an epitome of gamification, which turns tiresome household work into a competitive game.
A couple of years ago my friend Bernard Revaz and I, started to work on a new project around citizen science, which is the crowd-sourcing of scientific data acquisition and analysis. Citizen science (CS) is a beautiful concept that I have been watching evolve ever since the first very successful online project, Galaxy Zoo was launched. CS lets you participate in diverse scientific research projects from natural sciences to the humanities, and help researchers analyze large databases of images or text. This sort of analysis is where a person’s excellent pattern-recognition skills are invaluable. And this help goes two ways: Not only can those involved contribute to science, the science being explored can teach us those involved. Amy Robinson Sterling, Executive Director of the Eyewire CS project and my GDC co-speaker, once told me that the power-users in their project can sometimes be just as helpful as those working in a lab on the same tasks.
At Massively Multiplayer Online Science, we decided to take a different approach to combining video games with citizen science. We saw that even though gamification is an interesting add-on to CS, it doesn’t solve the long-term engagement and retention problems. Working on CS research tasks can be as repetitive and tedious as any grinding activity in games, and so users tend to quit fairly quickly. But we noticed that the game industry solved this in-game grinding problem: video game designers know how to make repetitive activities enjoyable and engaging. To put this into context: if you perfected your stealth skills to the point where you managed to earn your first chicken dinner in PUBG, if you spent time training to pilot your first Titan in EVE Online or became a pro at World of Tanks and received your first Tarczay’s Medal, you probably spent way more time with these games than the most active one percent of CS users spend on projects. Not only that, but you also showed the traits of a good researcher: persistence, thoroughness and the passion to solve puzzles. You taught yourself how to reach the solution faster than your peers and the ability to remain calm. This knowledge led to the realization that we must try combining CS and video games from the other way around: introducing CS tasks in already existing video games as an integrated part of the game experience. And using those players to solve real-life scientific problems without breaking the immersion from the game.
Last July we launched the second CS project together with EVE Online, the University of Geneva and the University of Reykjavík. With Project Discovery Exoplanets, players are asked to analyze real-world astronomical data in the form of light curves — long-term measurements of the luminosity of distant stars — from the CoRoT space telescope in the search for exoplanets. Since its launch, players have submitted 65 million analysis, which made Project Discovery one of the most active CS projects ever. The preliminary analysis shows that players have a good chance of finding new planets. But it wasn’t until I was at Eve Online‘s annual gathering, the EVE Fanfest, that I realized what we had achieved. I spotted well-known Eve Player Max “The Space Pope” Singularity talking to Professor Michel Mayor, who co-discovered 51 Pegasi b, the first exoplanet. It was extraordinary seeing the positive reactions from players, the commitment and amazing work of EVE Online developers and the enthusiastic response from researchers. The results makes me want to encourage everybody in the game industry to hop on board. Let it be citizen science or any other creative enterprise with a real-life relevance: don’t hesitate to see if all that pure brainpower that players spend in your games can be put into good use.
This is part of a series of columns written by developers speaking at the Game Developers Conference in March.
Attila Szantner is the CEO and co-founder of Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS), a small Swiss start-up working on connecting citizen science with major videogames as a seamless gaming experience. Together with EVE Online, the Human Protein Atlas, the University of Geneva and the University of Reykjavik they created a citizen science mini-game inside EVE Online, called Project Discovery. The project has been praised in a number of articles in papers worldwide. In 2017 MMOS received the prestigious Lovie Awards for their role in creating Project Discovery Exoplanets.