Monday, 23 January 2012

The potential of crowdsourcing problems via games

I'm very excited about the potential of crowdsourcing via video games.

Video games are designed to capture and engross players, and motivate them to play for as long as possible. And there are many people who are quite happy to oblige. They struggle and toil to defeat enemies, collaborate and organise themselves to solve problems. Many millions of hours of work are dumped into merely playing video games every day.

At the same time, many people have trouble with motivation, struggle with unemployment, can't get the training they require,etc., or there is simply very little work they can do locally.

To make a car analogy, it's as if the engine (effort from gamers) is revving at 6000 RPM, but no power is being transferred to the wheels (the industrial output of society). Video games can be the gearbox which manages and transfers that power.

In 2010, Jane McGonigal speculated about this in a TED talk:

Since then, what she predicted has happened. Gaming has been harnessed to solve a real-world problem - protein folding.
Obsessive gamers’ hours at the computer have now topped scientists’ efforts to improve a model enzyme, in what researchers say is the first crowdsourced redesign of a protein. 
The online game Foldit, developed by teams led by Zoran Popovic, director of the Center for Game Science, and biochemist David Baker, both at the University of Washington in Seattle, allows players to fiddle at folding proteins on their home computers in search of the best-scoring (lowest-energy) configurations. 
The researchers have previously reported successes by Foldit players in folding proteins1, but the latest work moves into the realm of protein design, a more open-ended problem. By posing a series of puzzles to Foldit players and then testing variations on the players’ best designs in the lab, researchers have created an enzyme with more than 18-fold higher activity than the original. The work is published today in Nature Biotechnology. 
“I worked for two years to make these enzymes better and I couldn’t do it,” says Justin Siegel, a post-doctoral researcher working in biophysics in Baker’s group. “Foldit players were able to make a large jump in structural space and I still don’t fully understand how they did it.”
Read the rest of the article here:

We've finally dipped our toes in the water and immediately solved a real world-problem, far exceeding all expectations in the process. We should be working like mad to harness this potential. Government funding, private investment, whatever.

And, I propose that once gamers start solving real-world problems, they should get real-world rewards. Money. Employment in gaming.

I also think that the most effective way to do this, is to create games more like WoW and less like Foldit. Most of the time, anyway. I don't see why you can't hide real problem solving beneath a more attractive and viscerally rewarding front-end.

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