They know all about saving fictional worlds, but gamers are now being called upon by researchers to lend a hand in one of humankind's biggest crises—the Covid-19 pandemic. So far, they have risen to the occasion and delivered the equivalent of 471 years of work.
In the multiplayer space opera EVE Online, a mini-game called Project Discovery doubles as a citizen science platform, studying the human immune system’s response to the novel coronavirus. Participants take on data analysis through gameplay that helps researchers isolate specific patterns as predictors of disease severity.
The project is a collaboration with McGill University, the British Columbia Cancer Research Centre, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. To design the citizen science component, EVE Online developer CCP Games worked with Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS), a Swiss company that connects scientific research with games to build a seamless gaming experience. According to a CCP Games spokesperson, there are 426,000 players participating in the Covid-19 mini-game right now, and they have completed 1.8 million analysis tasks since the project’s launch in June 2020.
In the highly competitive MMORPG space, getting and retaining players is a never-ending challenge. For citizen science projects, says Bergur Finnbogason, creative director of EVE Online, retaining players is critical. Unlike distributed computing programs like SETI@Home, which need mass computing power, projects like these need human input. And for that you need players who return to play again and again.
Despite falling figures, EVE Online remains popular as one of the longest-running online multiplayer games—it predates World of Warcraft by a year and a half, and has been called “peerless.” Its immense universe, called New Eden, comprises almost 8,000 star systems. Gameplay is essentially a DIY space opera, where players—called capsuleers—embark on epic space missions that encompass exploration, mining, industry, and more. Plus, there’s plenty of piracy, as well as no-holds-barred PvP and PvE battles. In between vying for cosmic riches and glory, capsuleers can also take time to boost critical research processes on Earth via Project Discovery. In return, they are rewarded with unique in-game goodies, like exclusive apparel and facial augmentations, not to mention the honor of having a hand in real-world scientific breakthroughs.
In Project Discovery’s latest mission, players help scientists study the impact of Covid-19 on our immune systems by analyzing the blood of infected individuals for disease markers. “We basically built an interface with scientific servers … [through which] you can swap out the data [into the game],” says Finnbogason. Players have to find and mark cell clusters in the blood of infected Covid-19 patients using a tracing tool.
“Oftentimes, it’s really easy to see big and dense clustering,” he says, “but when things become very sparse, that’s where the money lies, in a way.” Multiple players work on the same data sets to reach consensus about the specific areas of interest. Once the data sets are sent back to the research lab and verified, a higher-resolution cross-section of the area is fed back into the game for players to look at again.
The process helps scientists pinpoint the areas they need to look at more closely to understand infection in different cell populations and types. The contribution of gamers, says David Ecker, production director for EVE Online, helps cut down a ton of data-crunching tasks that scientists would otherwise have to do. Considering that there are significantly fewer scientists compared to gamers, he adds, “we can just skip them ahead so many working years of time, so they [only] look at samples that our players have deemed worth looking at.”
The data submitted by citizen scientists won’t just help researchers study SARS-CoV2 infections. It will also become training data for artificial intelligence systems so these kinds of processes can be automated in the future. The AIs that are trained could help not just with Covid-19 research but also other diseases.
For an authentic gameplay experience, Finnbogason says, they set some ground rules to ensure that whatever research they support fits thematically into the EVE Online universe, “so we don’t want people to look at data with pictures of elephants and zebras,” Finnbogason explains. Next, equally important, is that the research needs to be of an altruistic nature. “We don’t want to be, like, looking for bomb targets,” he adds. The third rule they have is that it has to take a consistent amount of time to solve. On top of that, of course, it must be challenging enough to keep players engaged.
In May this year, Project Discovery picked up a Webby Award for their contribution to Covid-19 research. But this project wasn’t its first outing as a citizen science platform. Since 2017, Project Discovery has contributed human cell classifications to the Human Protein Atlas, and helped scientists locate exoplanets outside of our solar system. The latter project helped Professor Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva pick up a Nobel Prize for Physics in 2019.
At present, there is no endgame in mind for Project Discovery, Finnbogason says. “EVE is an ever-evolving universe, it’s a parallel reality to the reality that we live in … it’s not going to necessarily be in our hands when Project Discovery will end.” While they are not looking for another project to support right now, he says that there are several kinds of research that could benefit from citizen science initiatives in general.
“There is so much to do,” Ecker says. “Multiplayer games, more games in general, need to incorporate citizen science … especially as games have been turning to being very much live service with extreme long-term retention. To take some of that and use it for some greater scientific good is a big challenge for the entire industry.”
Finnbogason says that he went into the project with the same starry-eyed optimism as he had back in the day of SETI@home—“I was definitely role-playing the aliens coming and me having to defend Earth and stuff like that”—but over time it has been an incredibly humbling process working with the scientific community. And while it has shaved off hundreds of years of mind-numbing tasks, in return Project Discovery has also rekindled interest in EVE Online and provided new gamers an opening into its vast universe.