Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible

Exploring the area between the unknown and the impossible.

A Modest Proposal: Game-Sourcing Redux


In the series "A Modest Proposal," my colleagues and I will propose inventions and projects that I think are eminently doable and would love made real.

Could World of Warcraft help cure cancer? Credit: Blizzard Entertainment.

I had earlier suggested using games that are fun and popular to do useful work. The idea of such "game-sourcing" would be to make the most of human brainpower to attack forms of computation that computers are poor at, using games that are already hits to take advantage of the power of the crowd and accomplish something important.

It turns out that bestselling science-fiction author Neal Stephenson independently hits on much the same idea in his latest book "Reamde." One of the elements of the novel is a massively multiplayer online game (MMORG) called T'Rain. Although the game is very much like World of Warcraft, it differs in at least two notable ways — it is designed to be as friendly to gold farming as possible so as to have a stable in-world economy, and it is designed to have the potential for real-world applications.

The game-sourcing idea in question is detailed on pages 131 to 138. The invention is named the Medieval Armed Combat as Universal Metaphor and All-Purpose Protocol Interface Schema (MACUMAPPIS). This is essentially an application programming interface or API — "the software control panels that tech geeks slapped onto their technologies in order to make it possible for other tech geeks to write programs that made use of them," as Stephenson explains.

The first project carried out with MACUMAPPIS paid huge amounts of gold to players who caught goblins trying to sneak in through the exit of the mighty Citadel of Garzantum. All the video of goblins and other fantasy humanoids the players saw were based on real feeds of airport occupants to spot intruders going where they shouldn't.

Stephenson notes that such grunt work could in principle be delegated to a smart enough algorithm — putting humans into the loop was a marketing stunt. Still, my hope is that it is possible to employ players of MMORGs and other popular games to do work that computers have a hard time of doing, and to "gamify" such tasks to make them enjoyable as possible rather than mind-numbingly boring.

I had earlier wrote:

Could the gold farming that is so integral to World of Warcraft or the puzzle game Bejeweled hosted within that massively multiplayer online game be used for good?

It'd be very interesting if we could take gold-farming, an essentially meaningless task that vast numbers of MMORG players are already performing to sell the virtual gold for real-life money, and somehow change it so that it could help accomplish a meaningful task — say, helping find a cure for cancer.

You can email me regarding A Modest Proposal at and follow the series on Twitter at #modestproposal.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article