Gaming for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science

Crowdsourcing and citizen science are integrating lessons from gaming culture studies in lots of interesting ways. Since many rote tasks performed by scientists are becoming too large for individuals to complete, particularly under tighter budgets, crowdsourcing — allowing the public to participate — is a viable way of fulfilling necessary activities. Many of these tasks are still too large and complex for ordinary citizens, so citizen science and crowdsourcing often borrow concepts and ideas from gaming studies to make tasks more manageable.

These key concepts and ideas can be classified into a few broad categories. First, successful crowdsourcing and citizen science projects make their tasks fun to complete. Most adopt diverse approaches to reward participants for completing tasks. A particularly innovative approach to incentivization is to link tasks to a user profile, similar to social networking sites; this allows users to track their contributions and share their participation statistics with their friends. HealthMap’s Flu Near You application uses this idea exceptionally well, even allowing users to register using their Facebook accounts and giving users a “profile” to track their symptoms.

Second, projects often create tasks that encourage people to do things they already enjoy doing. This increases the project’s chance of success, as it builds on activities in which the people were already engaged. Although this is easier for some projects than others, it can benefit a project to think about ways to make contributing seamless and enjoyable. For example, the National Zoo recently conducted a citizen science project in which hikers on the Appalachian Trail were given cameras to set up along the trail to monitor animal habitats and migration. Similarly, the USA National Phenology Network, which allows people to observe plants’ and animals’ seasonal changes (migration, budding, reproduction, etc.), found that they increased participation when they framed participation not in terms such as “birding for science” but instead as “organize your hobbies.”

Third, some projects have found it most useful to turn large, complex scientific processes into a game that laypeople can play. A recent paper by scholars at University of Washington showed how debugging millions of lines of software code for errors and security flaws can be translated into a rather simple game that laypeople can enjoy. This latter paper provides some interesting broader linkages, in particular to citizen science.

The project translated its research challenge into a game, and in so doing allowed laypeople to contribute toward verifying the software code and its security requirements. Citizen science can learn from this on two fronts. First, like the paper itself, “gamifying” such platforms can contribute to code verification and debugging. For larger, more complex systems this may reduce the concept-to-deployment time, as well as the resources required to check the system. Second, data processing may be streamlined and made more efficient by translating the process into a game. This is the approach adopted by a few different Zooniverse platforms, including Cell Slider and Galaxy Zoo. If datasets are too large to process and analyze quickly, perhaps a game might help scientists move through this stage quickly.

The Commons Lab is also actively researching crisismapping, a field that could greatly benefit by thinking about different contributions gaming might make. Most of the lessons above can be easily transferred into crisismapping development, making this area ripe with potential for crossover. More on this in the future.

About the author

Ryan Burns, PhC, is a doctoral candidate in geography at University of Washington-Seattle. He is currently serving as a research assistant with the Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is studying the social and political implications of geographic technologies, particularly the ways new mapping and social media technologies are being integrated into disaster management strategies.

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