Thursday, February 22, 2007

Massively multi-citizen science is almost here

Can a game developer be nominated for a Nobel Prize in one of the sciences by the year 2032? That's my plan, which I presented this past weekend at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

You can download the slides from my talk, or read the related research paper (hot off the press!), or peruse some related links, on my AAAS webpage here. (Or see what Newsday took away from it here.)

My goal over the next decade is to support the development of a massively multi-citizen science through massively collaborative games (think: alternate reality games with real-world data embedded inside.)

So in the near future, when the most creative, collective-intelligence gamers are grinding away 10, 20, 30, or more hours a week, they're grinding on real scientific research problems wrapped inside a yummy fictive or fantasy shell.

Yes, I am calling for a truly popular scientific research practice that engages the global public in hands-on, brains-on collaboration, via sites Citizen Science and Amazon's Mechanical Turk and through immersive, story-driven play. Amateur participation + a creative commons for science literature + the stickiness of a well-designed game and well-told story = radically interdisciplinary mash-ups accessible to lay people and productive of real scientific insight.

Sound crazy? No way. This is seriously possible, and plausible. Here's three reasons why:

1) Science practice itself is increasingly leaning toward a kind of collective intelligence, amateur participation. You can read about it in the incredible Institute for the Future report: Delta Scan: The Future of Science and Technology, 2005-2055.

2) Meanwhile, there is no doubt -- as I argue in my new 50-page case study for the MacArthur foundation -- that alternate reality gamers are doing real CI investigations that would fully prepare them for real-world collaborative research. Their gameplay is already fundamentally a CI scientific effort to undertand fake (fictive) data. I'm just proposing that we shove some real scientific data in there, while they're at it.

3) And perhaps most importantly, as Sean Stewart - the original and most esteemed alternate reality storyteller around - has famously said: "I do NOT assert that [alternate reality gaming] is the first, or greatest, example of massively multi-player collaborative investigation and problem solving. Science, as a social activity promoted by the Royal Society of Newton's day and persisting to this moment, has a long head start and a damn fine track record.... We just accidentally re-invented Science as pop culture entertainment."

So, yes, If this sounds interesting, get the slides. And here are a couple of other sites to get you thinking: "Fostering Scientific Habits of Mind in the Context of Online Play" and MacArthur Spotlight on Digital Media & Learning.

If you want to propose a data set, scientific problem, or research focus for a massively multi-citizen science game, or if you want to be notified when there's such a game to be played, email me at jane @ thenameofthisblog dot com.


Patrick said...

Loosely speaking (the kind I'm best at) I think this is the best means humaity has to modulate the acceleration of change in the world. Specifically though, I'm not getting a clear sense of how you would address the problem of giving people incentives. Sure, games are "sticky", and MMORPGs show that we can get millions to devote the kind of hours your describing, but I think there's an entirely different mode at play in that case, and the kind of participation you're looking for needs some kind of potential return, if not monetarily than in terms of recognition, in order to attract the right kind of talent and bootstrap the movement.

What sort of incentivizing mechanisms do you have in mind?

Jane said...

Hi Patrick! A short answer you will may find infuriatingly inadequate, but the only one that makes any sense in my opinion: the incentivizing mechanism is an *exquisitely* well-designed game. I think you are incorrect to say that payoffs are needed, although for all I know you could have a mercenary parallel thread develop. But for me, the payoff for those who get involved is the beautiful game and the beautiful community and the intrinsically satisfying activity. This is a new project and I'm not spilling all the beans yet. More to come.

andrewstern said...

Interesting! Presumably you will be talking about this idea at your SGS keynote?

Ken said...

Fascinating work - I'm intrigued to see what it looks like.

My only concern is your apparent emphasis on Grey's (flawed) "How Science Works." I question how anyone could "get an idea" without some prior observations and experiences.

For a slightly different (and more inclusive and accurate alternative), check these slides, from a research methods course I taught last year.

Ian Timothy said...

Hey Jane, thanks for sharing with us. All these sound really exciting and interesting.

I just wanted to drop a note to let you know that the link to ARGN on the aaas.htm page is which is some godaddy parking page instead of

Thanks again for consistently sharing about your work!

xnbomb said...

I like the concept. I like it a lot. I think the challenge will be to abstract or translate or analogize the scientific problem (whatever it may be) into a form that lends itself to being attacked in a collective gaming type situation.

For my part, I find the problems I confront in my work tend to confound precise definition, even in their native form, by people who have all the necessary specialized background to understand them adequately, right up until they are on the verge of being solved. That is to say that the tricky part is often defining the problem. I'm not sure if that sort of problem will be approachable in your paradigm.

Rather, I think that what you are looking for would be problems that are extremely well defined (to the extent that their salient characteristics can be identified and extracted so the problem can be explained to someone who does not a Ph.D. in that realm of inquiry), but are still somehow difficult to solve. I have no doubt such problems exist, but can't think of one off the top of my head.

Jane said...

hey xnbomb! as I dicussed at AAAS i have 3 well-define problems to start out with:

1) AI development (natural interactions with people)

2) protein folding, pharmaceutical searching, SETI-like stuff, etc.

3) environmental data collection (think citizen science canada & citizen science royal societ UK)

there is a murkier idea as well involving tagging scientific literature across discipline to create a creative commons for science (so that AI researchers and alzheimers reserachers might realize they have insights the other needs, etc., or to avoid spending limited resources on needlessly redundant studies)

Reaper said...

Very interesting stuff... but is there any place for it in conventional, non electronic gaming too? Or is the non network physicality of it too limiting to get the same kind of collective participation?

xnbomb said...

It was great to talk with you at ARGFest! Now, I *have* seen your response to my previous comment, and can respond in kind :)

Of the three problems you list, I get excited most by the first, because it is one of the three that has the greatest potential to tap into the human resource as an ARG does; namely, by taking advantage of the unique qualities of the individuals involved to help solve a problem.

The data collection example appeals to the geographer in me in that takes advantage of one attribute that can be fairly unique, where people are located, but this is less about what that person can bring to the table because of who they are than where they happen to live. I'm least satisfied with the SETI-type example because to me this is less multi-citizen science than it is multi-citizens' idling computers science.

I'm not saying that is not an exciting thing in and of itself, though. But, I am imagining something more grand, where we can bring to bear the intellects of the collective to a scientific problem, rather than just their computing cycles, or their locations. The vast human potential I've seen in ARGs is those many minds, with their broad experiences, qualities, abilties, and knowledge. I think the right kind of problem, framed carefully, might benefit from exposure to that vast, unpredictable, collective intellect.

dan said...

For those of us who didnt see you AAAS presentation, are there any other posts/presentations where you describe in more details your proposed 3 starting test points?

Kam said...

Exactly what I'm trying to do - make games that inpire children about science and create a better world. To this end I came up with NanoMission - see scientific yet fun games.