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Want people to volunteer as lab rats? Turn your science into a game.

book cover, video controller on blue background

St. Martin’s Press
Power Play
Power Play: How video games can save the world by Asi Burak and Laura Parker.
The following is an excerpt from Power Play: How video games can save the world by Asi Burak and Laura Parker.
One of the most successful examples of citizen science is Lab in the Wild,
an experimental platform for conducting online behavioral experiments.
It was launched in 2012 by Krzysztof Gajos, an associate professor of
computer science at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and
Applied Sciences, with the help of one of his postdoctoral researchers,
Katharina Reinecke. The platform administers game-like tests online to
unpaid volunteers. At the time of launch, Gajos was interested in
observing how humans interact with computational systems, particularly
how online interfaces can better accommodate people’s varying abilities
to see, hear, and interact.
Lab in the Wild launched with three studies, the most successful of
which asked participants to rate a number of websites, on a scale of 1
to 9, based on visual appeal; more than 40,000 people from some 200
countries participated in the study, varying in age from 6 to 99. “We
had everyone from scientists to plumbers take part,” Reinecke said. The
results of the study supported Reinecke’s theory that what users
perceive as “good” design is subject to individual and cultural
preferences. For example, the level of colorfulness and visual
complexity people prefer varies wildly: according to the study, women
like colorful websites more than men, while a highly educated person
generally prefers less color. Russians prefer lower visual complexity,
while Macedonians like highly intricate designs. Later, Gajos and
Reinecke published a paper on Lab in the Wild, in which they compared
three experiments performed on the platform with similar studies done
inside the lab, concluding that the online results replicated the in-lab
studies with “comparable data quality.” They concluded: “In comparison
to conventional in-lab studies, Lab in the Wild enables the recruitment
of participants at larger scale and from more diverse demographic and
geographic backgrounds.”
Some people would argue that games like Foldit and the activities found on Testmybrain.org
and Lab in the Wild aren’t really games. Not in the traditional sense,
anyway. Few people would choose to play Foldit over Tetris based on
technical elements and entertainment value, for example. But that
doesn’t necessarily exclude Foldit and the others from the category of
games. The boundaries of game design have been slowly shifting and
stretching over the last five years to include more experimental and
innovative projects. Could a game like Foldit be better designed?
Undoubtedly. But the fact that the game needs to deliver on a very
specific objective—in this instance, a scientific one—limits what the
game can be in the end, and it’s therefore hard to say how much better,
from a pure gaming standpoint, it could be.
However, if these games could be designed to be more entertaining, that would certainly increase their impact, because even more people would want to play them. “I don’t want
my documentary to be boring. It may have to be boring in parts to make a
point, but that’s never the goal,” said Nicholas Fortugno, lead
designer of the wildly popular game Diner Dash and the co-founder of the
New York City–based game development studio Playmatics. “Better design
makes better games, and the better the game is, the more it’s played. If
the game has social impact, then of course you want it played as much
as possible. The fact that a lot of people played it is a triumph that
shouldn’t be overlooked, but it didn’t live up to its potential if
better design would let [even] more people access it.”
Fortugno believes that many of these games would benefit from the
touch of a professional game designer. This isn’t to say that good games
never come from amateurs—rather, that game expertise can make a game
more appealing. Whether the games should be commercial is a different
question. “I think that the question of money has little to no bearing
on how fun the experience is. A good, serious game should make the
high-end goal itself fun to achieve through [its] mechanics.”
Reinecke didn’t go out of her way to attract people to Lab in the
Wild; instead, participants had the option of sharing the results of
their tests online, which many did, inspiring others to take the test.
Today, the site averages around 1,000 participants per day. There are
usually only six to nine studies live on the site at any one time;
researchers can submit their studies for preapproval, after which Lab in
the Wild posts the studies to its Facebook page and asks users for
their feedback. If the response is positive, the study goes up. The only
rule is that studies have to be fun, simple, and shareable. One of the
site’s most popular studies was a test that guessed users’ ages based on
their clicking speeds; it attracted more than a million participants in
its first two months. The site also provides users with personalized
feedback, allowing each participant to compare him or herself with users
in other countries. This is probably why Lab in the Wild has had so
much success on social media—currently, the majority of the site’s
traffic comes from Facebook. (The top user countries are usually the
United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Romania, and Hungary.) “I
know of other successful citizen science and crowdsourcing projects
where the people involved are really in it to help the world,” Reinecke
says. “With us, it’s the opposite. It’s less about altruism, and more
about personal motivation— but hey, whatever works, right?”
Excerpt from Power Play: How video games can save the world by Asi Burak and Laura Parker. Copyright © 2017. Available from St. Martin’s Press Popular Science is
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