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How Players Will Soon Tackle Big Problems in Science

By Steven Messner on October 30, 2015 | Columns | Comments

How Players Will Soon Tackle Big Problems in Science

The Human Protein Atlas has a problem. In its database exists over 13 million images that need mapping, and there just simply aren't enough scientists to do it. But in the coming months, EVE Online players will be able to channel their passion for science fiction into solving this problem. Though the massive battles of nullsec alliances might lead you to think otherwise, the galaxy of New Eden is surprisingly altruistic, and now players have an opportunity to apply that virtue in a way that can potentially better humanity as a whole.

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Project Discovery is a joint initiative between CCP Games, scientists involved with the Human Protein Atlas, and Swiss company Massively Multiplayer Online Science. In an attempt to better facilitate the identification of millions of images, players in EVE Online will be able to participate in a classification mini-game built into EVE and earn rewards for their keen eyes.

The mission is simple: Using the invested audience of EVE Online, Project Discovery will feed about a 250,000 images of microscopic cells and tissue that players will then study to identify basic shapes and structures, categorizing the images in a way that will help scientists deduce a given protein's purpose. It's an ambitious project, but everyone involved is confident that if anyone can tackle it, it's the pilots of EVE Online..

"The game is really well suited for this," Pétur Örn Þórarinsson (better known as CCP Scarpia), game design director and lead gameplay designer for EVE Online, said during our interview at EVE Vegas. "But the players specifically are mature, and we just know that a lot of them are very technically minded—it's a lot of practicing scientists and a lot of people that are curious about technology and science."

"But the most important piece of it, though, is that time and time again the community has shown that they are really, really charitable and altruistic. The game is just an alibi for them to do something amazing together."

CCP Scarpia went on to describe all of the charity drives that players and CCP have organized over the years, including Plex For Good which raised over $100,000 earlier this year to support disaster relief efforts following a series of earthquakes that devastated the country of Nepal. Plex for Good was the seventh time the community has banded together, raising over $470,000 in total. CCP Scarpia believes that, in the minds of the EVE players, Project Discovery will be just another cause to rally behind—one that will change humanity for the better.

"It's understanding cell biology, understanding how humans work, and, in the long run, understanding how disease develops," Professor Emma Lundberg said. "The more we know and the more we understand the more we can make better cures." Lundberg is an associate professor with the Human Protein Atlas, a Stockholm-based organization that is building a massive database of these images that is available for anyone to access.

During her presentation at EVE Vegas, Professor Lundberg explained how tackling the categorization and mapping of these images is simply beyond the scope of the scientists at the Human Protein Atlas, and by training and rewarding players to effectively sort through these images for them, much faster progress can be made to understand the complex relationships proteins have with every aspect of our bodies.

Because the pattern recognition involved is essentially a skill, players will need to participate in a tutorial built into the mini-game to teach them what to look for. It's a skill that, for Professor Lundberg, only takes a second, but, depending on the player, might take others much longer. The results will still need to be verified, but the hope is that EVE players prove themselves adept enough at the process to be able to handle more and more complicated "atlases".

Starting out, Project Discovery will only be using the subcellular atlas which contains around 250,000 images to sort through. If the results are strong enough to continue, Professor Lundberg explained that they may look into upgrading to more complex images from other atlases. Across the whole Human Protein Atlas project, there are 13 million images that need to be mapped at this time.

If the Human Protein Atlas is the iron, and EVE Online is the hammer, then it is Massively Multiplayer Online Science that is the hand that swings it. Founded by Bernard Revas and Attila Szantner, the company connects scientific research and video games to help create a seamless experience. During a dinner at Vegas, I got a chance to briefly talk with Andie Nordgren (CCP Seagull), executive producer at CCP Games, who told me that Project Discovery all started as a series of persistent emails from Szantner.

Szanter later added: "The whole thing started out in Geneva, where, with a friend of mine, we had an evening of drinking and brainstorming—as many good ideas start." Though Massively Multiplayer Online Science is a new frontier for him, he has had no shortage of experience in bringing people together over a common interest. In 2002, Szantner co-founded iWiW which went on to become the biggest social networking site in Hungary with 4.7 million viewers before the advent of Facebook.

Szantner explained how he was interested in taking the ideas behind citizen science projects, and finding new ways to engage players. "I was fascinated with these ideas and these concepts," he said. "Somehow we ended up with this idea of, you know, there are games with which we spend enormous amounts of time. How can we use that huge power for something that is relevant for real life?"

Integral to the mission of Massively Multiplayer Online Science is creating an experience that naturally fits into the lore and universe of a given game. Due to the science fiction aesthetic of EVE Online, the strikingly beautiful images of the Atlas fit perfectly into the alien nature of EVE's world. Even better, CCP Games is building a story surrounding Project Discovery that will be revealed over the course of its lifetime, including immortalizing Professor Lundberg into the galaxy of New Eden as the Sisters of EVE scientist who will walk players through the process of beginning their steps as a crowd-sourced scientist.

Though CCP has yet to finalize the details surrounding the reward structure of the project, their initial plans were to give "loyalty points" for the Sisters of EVE faction, which players can redeem for various items within the game. For now, those details are subject to change as CCP continues to listen to player feedback.

Regardless, Szantner is convinced that the rewards, though a helpful motivator, won't be the sole reason EVE players embrace the project. But he did stress that, for them, this was very much the litmus test of whether there was a future in integrating real science into the games we play. "This is the first step in this process, and if we can prove that this works then in the future we would like to have several games jump aboard."

"It's going to be a huge human computation service for science—that's our vision."

For more information on Project Discovery, you can listen to Szantner's presentation given at this year's EVE Fanfest in Iceland. Also, be sure to check back as more of our coverage of EVE Vegas rolls out!

Disclaimer: Travel, accommodations, dinner, and a ticket to EVE Vegas 2015 were provided by CCP Games. They have not requested, nor were granted any oversight on the topics or opinions expressed in the coverage of this event.

Steven Messner / Steven is a Canadian freelance writer and EVE Online evangelist, spreading the good news of internet spaceships far and wide. In his spare time, he enjoys writing overly ambitious science fiction and retweeting pictures of goats. Speaking of retweeting, you should probably drop everything and go follow him on Twitter @StevenMessner
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