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.