It's staggering how big a difference MMOSs have already made
Save the World with MMO Gaming? No, Really. Meet Massively Multiplayer Online Science.
For a tiny organization, the contribution of Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS) to science has already been staggering. The impact of the three million players who have participated via partnered games EVE Online and Borderlands 3 has pushed forward scientific fields from astronomy to DNA sequencing to COVID-19 immunity.
This is the first part of a three-part micro-series about the potential of MMOS, Project Discovery (EVE Online), and Borderlands Science (Borderlands 3). Our Head of Content, Alex Sinclair-Lack, sat down with Attila Szantner, the CEO and Co-Founder of MMOS, for an in-depth interview on the project’s potential. We’ve also reached out to MMOS’s partnered researchers, scholars, and game companies whose thoughts are interspersed throughout the interview. So strap in, we promise this is worth your while.
What MMOS Does
The idea of Attila and his partner, Bernard Revaz, for Massively Multiplayer Online Science was, in some ways, a simple one: crowdsource the types of scientific activity that humans excel at by integrating it into popular online games. If just a fraction of the gaming population’s playtime could be harnessed for science, it could save researchers centuries’ worth of research time.
“We founded MMOS around a highly specific core concept – to bring scientific crowdsourced microtasks into AAA games in a seamless experience. As players take part in a minigame, they receive in-game rewards while analysing scientific data and contributing to highly important scientific research.”
Why Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming is a Powerful Tool for Citizen Science
While recent years provide us with few reasons to believe that the internet will live up to its once-heralded uniting, democratising potential, MMOS has certainly offered one.
“I always found it a fascinating phenomenon that us outsiders can chip into scientific progress. Crowdsourced science existed long before the internet, but the internet has supercharged its potential. Gaming can and is supercharging it all over again.”
The creative influence of game designers can solve one of crowdsourced science’s greatest issues – longevity of contribution. In traditional crowdsourced science projects, citizen contributors typically lend their time for a while, intrigued by the concept, but stop before too long because the tasks in isolation grow monotonous.
“So, for a solution, who better to go to than video game publishers and developers – the kings of engagement – those who have mastered the art of making repetitive problem-solving tasks fun, long-lasting, and voluntary.”
Massively Multiplayer Online Science’s Success So Far
It is difficult to quantify the scale of MMOS’s success. While only a small organization themselves, through the collaborations they have initiated with their partners, they have provided a tool to science that would have otherwise been unattainable. They have brought countless people into the scientific process, and, as you can see through the video below, delivered compelling messages of science with a reach in the tens of millions.
Of course the scientific process does provide some more concrete ways of measuring MMOS’s successes. And, frankly, their results have been breathtaking and inspiring.
“We’ve had three million players contribute across our small handful of projects. Together, their amazing efforts have completed half a billion classifications. To put that into perspective, arguably one of the most successful and well-known crowdsourced science initiatives that existed before MMOS was Phylo – a project by McGill University, which over the preceding ten years had earned over 1.5 million classifications on DNA multiple sequence alignment. Phylo was the foundation of our first project with Borderlands. Gearbox designers added new elements and increased the fun-factor. On the first half-day of the launch of the Borderlands Science project, five times as much data was attained than Phylo had attained in the previous ten years.”
In spite of this success, and those unprecedented half-a-billion classifications across just four projects, Attila stays humble. “We don’t want to claim credit for these as our contributions. They belong to the amazing players who dedicated their time to helping humanity and to the game studios who took a risk on us before we had the evidence to back up our system.”
Changing the World Through Gaming
Only in the last decade have video games truly entered the mainstream – finally shaking off the negative reputation that they carried since their inception. There are many reasons to believe that the golden years of gaming are yet to come, not only through AAA gameplay but through initiatives such as Massively Multiplayer Online Science.
We reached out to Gearbox, the massive studio behind Borderlands, and one of the first movers on MMOS, to find out their opinion on the collaboration. They couldn’t have been clearer about its positive effects.
“I’m in my fifties, from that generation when video games and RPGs were too often looked down upon, and I’ve always strived to change that narrative. I love games. They engage you, proactively. There’s so much potential there. Our games create this incredible opportunity to get gamers involved in cutting-edge research endeavours. Games engage you to entertain and can also be made to engage you as an active agent to make the world a better place. My hope for Borderlands Science is to raise awareness about research and increase scientific literacy. Our industry should collectively pounce on this opportunity to improve our world. I’m super proud we did so through Borderlands 3.”- Sébastien Caisse, Studio Head and Director of Operations, Gearbox Studio Québec
Giving Meaning to Video Games
As renown author and historian Noah Yuval Harari argues in this excellent Guardian essay, video games are likely to play an ever more crucial role in our search for meaning in a world where our jobs will be increasingly automated; Harari writes, “The possibilities are endless, and nobody knows for sure what kind of deep plays will engage us in 2050.”
Massively Multiplayer Online Science perhaps gives us an inkling of these types of deep play while building on the idea in a more literal sense. By integrating these research projects inside games, video games not only give meaning to players, but we players give meaning to video games.
We spoke to Dr Jérôme Waldispühl the founder of the Phylo project, and a major player in both Gearbox’s Borderlands Science and CCP’s Project Discovery to determine his take on the projects’ significance and potential.
“Beyond the scientific results, I believe Borderlands Science and Project Discovery enable us to achieve something truly unique. It allows us to reach out to communities that might have been previously neglected by the scientific communication, and most importantly it allows us to empower the community to make them the actor of the scientific research. If we want to build a wise and truly inclusive and fair society, we must provide everyone with the tools to contribute to the construction of our common (scientific) knowledge. MMOs offer us a unique opportunity to achieve this vision and could demonstrate through this type of project the massive and positive impact people can have on the world.” - Dr. Jérôme Waldispühl, Associate Professor Computer Science, McGill University of Science
The Future of Massively Multiplayer Online Science
It is hard to resist buying into the enthusiasm and passion shared by Attila and all of the contributing researchers and partners. Massively Multiplayer Online Science has the feel of the start of something huge. The results they have already achieved speak for themselves, and this is only just the beginning.
We’ll leave you with a final quote from Attila, “For us as a society it’s almost imperative to find clever ways to extract value from all this time we spend in games. Gaming is, at its heart, problem solving. What we’re doing, I believe, is one way of extracting that real life value from the time we’re spending in these virtual worlds. The future is an open book, but one whose pages will no doubt be filled by new, impactful, crazy and worthwhile projects like ours.”
You don't want to miss Part 2 of this three-part micro-series on crowdsourced science and gaming wherein we delve into the research, discoveries, and results of EVE Online’s Project Discovery and Borderlands Science. We’ll also be exploring the origins of their cooperation and the vast benefits for video game publishers and developers who integrate citizen science into their virtual worlds.
MMOGames.com is committed to bringing you all the freshest, funniest, and most insightful MMO news. If you enjoyed this content, why not share it with your community? And make sure that you never miss our updates and exclusive giveaways by following and favouriting us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.