David Edery is the worldwide games portfolio manager for Xbox Live Arcade and a research affiliate of the M.I.T. Comparative Media Studies Program. He is also the author of the new book Changing the Game: How Video Games Are Transforming the Future of Business. This is his first of two guest posts.
There’s Free Labor in Video Games
By David Edery
A Guest Post
Consider the following: in 2003 alone, nine billion person-hours were spent playing the video game version of Solitaire — enough to create 500 Panama Canals. And as the popularity of highly “casual games” like Solitaire has grown in recent years, researchers have begun exploring ways to channel the enthusiasm of their players into experiences that solve very real problems.
One of those researchers is Professor Luis von Ahn, a winner of the MacArthur “genius grant.” Professor von Ahn created the ESP Game, which addresses the inability of today’s computers to identify random images.
The game works like this: two anonymous players are matched online without any means of communicating. Both players are shown an image (for example, a flowering plant) while a clock counts down. The players must then type words that describe the image, such as “plant.” When both players have typed at least one word in common, they both score points. More importantly, the players have also unintentionally taught the computer that the picture contains a plant!
More than 20 million labels have been harvested by the ESP Game in just a few years — the equivalent of several million dollars of free labor. Professor von Ahn estimates that just 5,000 people playing for a month could label every image on the web. Notably, Google has adopted the ESP Game and renamed it the Google Image Labeler, which anyone can play here.
Similarly, a team of researchers at the University of Washington have created a game called Fold.it, which turns the process of determining the ideal shape of a protein into a grand puzzle game. Like the ESP Game, Fold.it is useful because even very powerful computers have difficulty determining the shape of a protein. Human beings, with our spatial awareness and puzzle-solving skills, are better suited for the job. Fold.it has attracted a wide variety of players, many of whom are not biologists but who simply enjoy the challenges inherent to the game.
The ESP Game and Fold.it are so novel that they’ve attracted a fair amount of attention in tech-friendly circles. In the future, however, figuring out how to build buzz will be a significantly more important challenge for the creators of games of this sort.
Fortunately, commercial game developers have been dealing with this challenge for a very long time, and they’ve refined a number of so-called “viral” mechanisms that increase the odds that a person will refer a game to a friend. We explore the challenge of making a video game more viral in Changing the Game; an excerpt taken from that section is freely available online.
The ESP Game and Fold.it are just two examples of the ways that video games are now being used to solve otherwise difficult problems. In recent years, researchers and businesses have also used games to predict the future, to improve productivity in the workplace, and much more. You could say it beats working, but my point is that it shouldn’t have to.