330 years of COVID-19 research, working with Nobel Prize winners to discover exoplanets, mapping the human protein atlas, empowering the populace, increasing scientific literacy, and providing meaningful occupation to gamers’ hobbies. These are just some of the benefits reaped through Massively Multiplayer Online Science’s (MMOS) integration of crowdsourced science in video games.

Following up on our first article in this special mini-series, “Massively Multiplayer Online Science - Saving the World Through MMO Gaming”, our Head of Content Alex Sinclair Lack is back in conversation with Attila Szantner, the CEO and Co-Founder of MMOS. What’s more, we have the garnered the thoughts of Dr Jérôme Waldispühl, Associate Professor Computer Science at McGill University, Dr. Ryan Brinkmann, Professor of Medical Genetics at the University of British Columbia, as well as the esteemed Directors of CCP Games and Gearbox Studios to explore more about the world-changing implications of MMOS.

We will start with a Q&A with Attila, followed by an examination of their two greatest success stories so far: Borderlands Science and EVE Online’s Project Discovery.

Alex: How do the partnerships with game developers and publishers work? And how do you decide on a project?

Attila: In short, we present game publishers with a list of research projects that we think would fit with their game. From there, we work out how their players could help while the game designers work out the front-facing side. I’m really proud of our relationships with these companies, our current partners took some pretty big risks on us, and those risks really paid off. When I first spoke to Randy Pitchford, the CEO of Gearbox, Project Discovery hadn’t yet gone live, so I had no evidence that MMOS worked. But I explained the project with shining eyes, and he immediately saw the potential.

Alex: Are there any secrets to successful partnerships?

Attila: We have discovered that one of the components of our success is having no fixed agenda. We would never approach a game company and say, “Right, we’re here to sequence proteins or find exoplanets!” Instead, we adopt a flexible attitude of “Let’s work this out together.” No one knows the games and communities better than the developers but coming from the outside with a blank slate and a fresh perspective can be valuable too.

Alex: Are some games a better fit than others?

Attila: Sometimes these research projects are the perfect thematic fit. EVE Online and the search for exoplanets? A match made in the stars. Though the diverse collection of research projects that benefit from citizen science means that we can connect projects with nearly any type of game. Take Borderlands 3, you wouldn’t necessarily think that a looter-shooter with its unique aesthetic could have such massive success with crowdsourced science, but two-million participants and 82 million puzzle solutions later, and here we are. And we really do have a lot of research projects available, from plankton studies to the pollination of flowers.

Attila: We are always open to new game developers. We always go to great lengths to understand their games and find research topics that are a great fit. There is such potential for diversity in these projects, it’s our mission to show gaming communities their potential. We want it to become a “no brainer” for game companies to at least consider integrating some crowdsourced science. And it should be a no-brainer.

Case Study 1: CCP Games’ EVE Online – Project Discovery

EVE Online, from the beginning felt like the perfect fit for MMOS. It not only had the size and sci-fi appeal to make it an ideal testing ground, but its photorealism allowed for the introduction of real images like microscopic human cells without breaking player-immersion. The game and narrative designers at CCP were able to make beautiful connections between the goings on in New Eden and the three separate research projects that MMOS has so far conducted with them.

EVE Online’s first iteration of Project Discovery sought to map the human protein atlas. Their second focused around the search for exoplanets with the soon-to-be 2019 Nobel Prize winning Michel Mayor.

Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist Michel Mayor introducing Project Discovery’s search for Exoplanets

The latest Project Discovery initiative combats an issue that remains all-too-real: COVID-19. Dr Jérôme Waldispühl lent us his time to explain how the latest project came about and how EVE Online players are helping to battle the disease.

“Based on my experience with Colony B, a mobile app to help analyze microbiome data, I introduced Dr Ryan Brinkman to Attila. Ryan and I had previously explored the potential of using Colony B for flow cytometry analysis [a similar task to the one in Project Discovery], found it to be a good fit and moved ahead. From there, my role was focused around using my experience and technology to convert the scientific data into puzzles as well as aggregating the solutions collected in EVE to produce quantifiable data that was usable by scientists. Naturally, this also included tasks such as quality control of the puzzles and data, estimating the difficulty of the puzzles, as well as filtering and cleaning the data. We also collaborated with Ryan to build the machine-learning algorithms that leveraged that data.”

We asked Dr. Ryan Brinkmann, the distinguished scientist who worked alongside Jérôme on Project Discovery, to explain how citizen scientist-gamers, en masse, can do what others cannot:

“As we have thousands of citizen scientists, we are able to do a dip dive into the data - far more so than can be done by the scientists in the COVID-19 research labs that the data originated from. This data is often very high dimensional and there are just too many plots for scientists to go through, so they look solely in the most likely plots. Scientific breakthroughs often occur when we discover the unexpected in places we have never looked. So here we have the opportunity to find, for example, changes in the immune system that may have otherwise been overlooked. These changes could lead us to an understanding, say, of why only some people suffer from long COVID. At the same time, all the data the gamers are generating can be used by the bioinformatics community as input for the next generation of machine learning algorithms. Machine learning algorithms need data to learn from, and this does not exist in sufficiently substantial quantity in any place researchers can go to, download, and feed into these algorithms. This second aim of the project will wholly result in tools.”

To discover CCP Games’ take on Project Discovery, read our most recent EVE Online Directors Interview – Discovering Project Discovery.

Case Study 2: Gearbox Games – Borderlands Science

Borderlands Science aims to refine the analysis of human microbiome data – the millions of microbes living in our gut that have an impact on our health.

Borderlands, on the face of it, does not seem quite as natural of a fit for an inbuilt crowdsourced science minigame. It is, as Attila pointed out, a fast-paced looter shooter with a uniquely dystopian-yet-jovial art style. With that in mind, what better evidence is there of the potential for crowdsourced science in video games across any genre than that of Borderlands Science?

  • 284 million active participants have solved at least one puzzle

  • The top five weekly participants since launch have contributed more than 3,200 hours

  • 3 million puzzle solutions from Borderlands Science players

  • 202 years-worth of game time spent within Borderlands Science

It took a huge leap of faith from the folks at Gearbox who at the time had few, if any, examples of this sort of initiative working. Crucial to the launch of Borderlands Science was Phylo, an early citizen-science success story that we discussed in part one of our MMOS micro-series. One of the great minds behind Phylo is the very same Jérôme we’ve been interviewing:

“In 2010, I launched a scientific game called Phylo to help us analyze human genes. The novelty of Phylo at that time was that we wanted to make a real puzzle game using scientific data as opposed to simply the gamification of a scientific task. The game was accessible to anyone without registration. Our goal was really to engage as many participants as possible and allow everyone to contribute at any level he or she wants. To my knowledge, we were the first ones to adopt this strategy. The success of this approach was due to the abstract nature of the problem we were solving. We replaced the A C G T letters of our DNA code with tiles of four colors and designed a corresponding puzzle game.”

“Then, in 2017, Attila contacted me to bring the project to the next level. Attila was already in touch with Gearbox and was looking for a scientific game that could integrate with the Borderlands 3 Universe. You can imagine the challenge! We agreed that with a bit of work Phylo was a good starting point. We worked with the game designers at Gearbox who redesigned our game from scratch under our supervision. We launched Borderlands Science on April 7, 2020. In half a day, it generated five times more data than Phylo in 10 years! Since then, the participation has not ceased to exceed our expectations and reached more than 2 million participants in a year. To my knowledge, this is unprecedented for a scientific project of this type.”

Borderlands Science continues to great success to this day. They are now analysing the tens of millions of player-submitted solutions to help The Microsetta Initiative at UCSD in their analysis. More information can be found about it in their blog or their recent paper with Attila and Randy Pitchford for Nature.

Check out Part 1 of this interview where we introduced Massively Multiplayer Online Science and explored its potential for changing worlds both real and virtual. And Part 3, the final piece in this crowdsourced science gaming micro-series which investigates the benefits for game developers and publishers.

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