A year later, people playing an astronomy game called Planet Hunters found a curious planet with four stars in its system, and to date, they’ve discovered 40 planets that could potentially support life, all of which had been previously missed by professional astronomers.
On paper, gamers and scientists make a bizarre union. But in reality, their two worlds aren’t leagues apart: both involve solving problems within a given set of rules. Genetic analysis, for instance, is about finding sequences and patterns among seemingly random clusters of data. Frame the analysis as a pattern-spotting game that looks like Candy Crush, and, while aligning patterns and scoring points, players can also be hunting for mutations that cause cancer, Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes.
Our brains are geared up to recognise patterns,” says Erinma Ochu, a neuroscientist and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow at the University of Manchester, explaining why scientists are turning to gamers for help, “and we do it better than computers. This is a new way of working for scientists, but as long as they learn how to trust games developers to do what they do best – make great games – then they can have thousands of people from all around the world working on their data.”
The potential is huge. As a planet we spend 3bn hours a week playing online games, and 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. The trick, though, is to make the games as playable and addictive as possible – the more plays a game gets, the larger the dataset generated and the more robust the findings.
Zoran Popovic is the director of the Centre for Game Science at the University of Washington and is the co-creator of Foldit. He explains that while successfully entertaining the masses, these games are meeting a very pressing need: science needs more people.
No matter what academic process we go through,” he says, “we end up whittling down a huge population of middle schoolers interested in science to some small percentage that actually survive the PhD process and end up doing science. Considering how many open scientific problems there are, and how few scientists there are, it’s clear that we’re stymied in the progress of science simply by the number of able and interested people out there.”
Through Foldit alone he estimates that the number of people working on protein folding around the world has increased by four times in the past two and a half years. Zooniverse, a website that offers a wide range of online citizen-science projects including Planet Hunters, estimates that, together, their volunteers give them a virtual office block of 600 people working around the clock on scientific questions.
If you want to join in and become a fully fledged citizen scientist, or if you just want to contribute to science on your way to work, here are 10 of the best games around. But be careful, because they’re all pretty addictive. But that shouldn’t be a surprise… they’ve been designed, by scientists, to be so.