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Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible

Exploring the area between the unknown and the impossible.

A Modest Proposal: Game-Sourcing

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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.

A number of games now exist that are trying to make the most of human brainpower to accomplish something important. Humans are still far better than computers at a variety of tasks — for example, recognizing objects such as galaxies — and by harnessing these abilities, researchers hope such citizen science projects can achieve something amazing.

However, so far none of these games have become hits on the level of, say, Angry Birds, and one would ultimately like such games to become popular to really take advantage of the power of the crowd. My proposal is this: Instead of designing games that do something useful and then attempt to make them fun and popular, why not begin with games that are already fun and popular and then figure out ways to make them do something useful? Instead of taking work and figuring out how to make it into a popular game, why not take a popular game and figure out how to make it do work?

Could the Master Chief from Halo help cure cancer? Credit: Craig Mullins.

Just think of it — could all the brainpower that players of multiplayer online first-person shooters such as Halo or real-time strategy games like Starcraft be used to cure cancer? 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? Can social network games like Farmville actually do something useful?

A number of game designers have argued that the entire point of play is that there is no point to it — that games are fun because they are not work, and serve no purpose other than fun. I won't contest that.

However, are there any elements of gameplay in popular games that are forms of computation that computers are poor at? If scientists or game designers can answer that question, they might have powerful tools at hand to solve big problems. For those inclined toward a profit motive, I would note one could make a lot of money that way.

I'll fly my geek and gamer flags proudly now and note that I've written for Dungeons & Dragons and plan to again. I'm not a game designer, but off the top of my head, can you have a gametype akin to "capture the flag" within multiplayer online game franchises such as Call of Duty or Counterstrike where you have to hunt down a target bearing a symbol — say, a specific protein fold you are looking for? The results from such online gameplay from several franchises could then be collected to serve as clues for medical research.

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

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

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