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How to Manipulate Gamers for Science

| 19 Mar 2012 20:51
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A study shows how crowdsourcing can be controlled using games to collect the data researchers need.

The world is full of people and devices capable of collecting huge amounts of data. That data can be mined by scientists and researchers, but without a way to direct the masses, we are restricted by the whims of said masses. For example, computer scientists can create 3D models of famous monuments based on the large amount of photos on Flickr of the subject, but there aren't enough images of, say, my parents' house in order to adequately model my childhood home. A team from Northwestern University wrote a paper showing that people can be manipulated into collecting the data scientists need with frighteningly awesome results. How did they do it? With a game.

"We can rely on good luck to get the data that we need, or we can 'soft control' users with gaming or social network incentives to drive them where we want them," said Fabian Bustamante, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Luckily, "soft control" isn't a euphemism for some dirty sex game but a new term we'll likely see popping up everywhere. Bustamante's team created a simple game called Ghost Hunter for Android phones to solve the image dearth for buildings on the Northwestern campus. The players looked for specters at specific locations and held their phone up to "zap" the ghosts, which resulted in a photo being snapped and sent to the cloud.

"We wanted to know if we could get the players to go out of their way to get points in the Ghost Hunter game," Bustamante said. "Every time they zapped a ghost, they were taking a photograph of Northwestern's campus. We wanted to see if we could get more varied photographs by 'soft controlling' the players' movements."

Ghost Hunter was successful at getting college students to go outside their normal paths to collect the right data and the paper graduate student John P. Rula wrote on the experiment - Crowd (Soft) Control: Moving beyond the Opportunistic - posits that the concept can be refined for other purposes.

Of course, we've already seen how games can move science forward with project like Foldit - which employed game mechanics to solve problems scientists had with folding protiens - but imagine if all this could be applied to other disciplines. What if by playing Mass Effect we could work towards actually exploring space? Or devise new building techniques through Minecraft?

Source: Northwestern University

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