Friday, November 1, 2013

Crowdsourcing Games: The Fun Way to Change the World

This post was originally written for a digital culture class. See it here.

Dr. Burton talked to us in class yesterday about crowdsourcing and creativity and how the digital age provides us ways to create things together like never before. Today, I'm going to talk about a few crowdsourcing projects that have been packaged as a game to inspire more effort, creativity, and time out of participants.


Folder Madde's top scoring solution to the Mason pfizer monkey virus
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We talked about one such game in class, called Foldit. Foldit is a game about protein folding that invites players to find patterns in complex proteins and play around with them and try and fold them into the best possible shape so it has the function biologists want it to have. Proteins can fold into almost an infinite amount of shapes, with each shape causing the protein to function differently. Because of this, predicting what shape the protein needs to be in to function properly (to cure a disease, for example) is very difficult and very expensive, even with advanced supercomputers. The game, then, finds a way to leverage the creative and pattern-recognition powers of the human brain, and makes it fun to solve an extremely complex problem. Foldit has already helped with research on HIV, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease.

Perhaps the most surprising and wonderful result of Foldit is that even Ph.D. biologists aren't necessarily the best players. Players come from all backgrounds and many of the best players are neither biologists nor tech experts. It's true crowdsourcing--a project that becomes more than the sum of its parts.

But Foldit isn't the only crowdsourcing game out there. Several others have been very successful in solving all kinds of world problems, from oil to malaria, government spending and more.

The Guardian's "MPs' Expenses" Project

Screen capture of progress bar for the Guardian's "MPs' Expenses" project. Just a slight gaming element aided the productivity of the project greatly. (Image source:
Perhaps my favorite crowdsource success is the (London) Guardian's "MPs' Expenses" project. In 2009, the Guardian acquired nearly half a million documents of British Members of Parliament (MPs) expenses. This was a priceless acquisition for the newspaper, with the potential to expose millions of dollars of misused tax dollars. But one big problem remained--how could they go through it all and find the juicy stuff? The only answer was crowdsourcing. They set up a simple interface online to let anyone come in and read a document and flag anything suspicious for the reporters to look at. To inspire more participation, they added a very light gaming element: progress bars that told users how many pages they had collectively scanned and how many were left, and leader boards showing the most productive users. They also programmed a the site to show a picture of the MP they were researching to come up with each document, making users' efforts seem more personal and real. With this slight competitive drive added to a relevant, pressing cause, users blew through the entire set of documents within a few weeks users. The result was the discovery of over $150 million dollars in unnecessary spending, leading toseveral disciplinary actions and even some resignations, and an average of 5% decrease in spending across all parties the next year.

World Without Oil

Screenshot of the Week 18 status report from World Without Oil
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World Without Oil was a very simple game that existed more in concept than actual code. Quite simply, the game invited people to simulate the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis through blogs, forums, and wikis, and other online interactions. People from all over the world explored how their lives would change and how they would get by, with everyone offering creative solutions that other people could use. One Brazilian man, for instance, suggested that all those quarter-operated bubble-gum machines could be converted to be seed distribution centers so people could easily access seeds to star their own garden after produce stopped showing up in stores. The game concluded on June 1, 2007 and collected 1,500 personal chronicles posted across the web, reaching 68,000 viewers--and over 110,000 by the end of the year. Due to all the effort put in by the players, thousands of people adopted real-world solutions they had learned by playing, and many viewers and players alike made real lifestyle changes to reduce their oil consumption.


A game of MalariaSpot--simple but powerful
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So far, the only reliable way to diagnose malaria is by looking at blood smears under a microscope and counting the number of parasites. This is time consuming, which is especially frustrating for doctors and experts who have so much else they can do to help people and don't want to spend all their time counting dots in a is a game meant to solve the problem by letting non-experts look at uploaded microscope photos and spot the parasites themselves. In one study, combining the efforts of just 13 players trained for just one minute each could yield results of over 99% accuracy. Even if the players had no prior training, combining results from 22 players would yield the same results. Rounds of MalariaSpot only last one minute each, so it's extremely low-cost to the players and extremely beneficial to the doctors. So far, over 380,000 parasites have been properly identified by players of MalariaSpot.

And more...

The best part is that crowdsourcing games (and other games built to cause good in the real world) are a growing trend, with real-world results increasing every day. For more information, look around the Games for Change website, an organization dedicated to collecting, promoting, and creating games that make a real-world difference.

Crowdsourcing is an extremely effective tool to solve big problems and achieve big dreams with wide participation done quickly and cheaply. Adding a gaming element to this crowdsourcing inspires even more participation, and rewards participants with fun and satisfaction. Crowdsource gaming (and gaming elements within more traditional crowdsourcing platforms) will only continue to rise as we learn how better to leverage the wisdom of the crowd and better provide satisfactory gameplay experiences around serious issues.

So, what are you still doing here? Go play some games and save the world!

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