The idea of citizen science isn’t a new one. Amateur scientists have been making important discoveries as far back as Ug the Neolithic hunter and her ‘wheel’, while even Newton, Franklin, and Darwin were self-funded for part of their careers, and Herschel discovered Uranus while employed as a musician. It’s only from the late 20th century that it’s crystallised into what we know today, with the North American Butterfly Association using its members to count the popular winged insects since 1975. Zooniverse has users classify images to identify stellar wind bubbles, track coronal mass ejections, and determine the shape of galaxies. Then there’s Folding@Home and other cloud computing projects—they count too.
These citizen science projects are, essentially, experiments in human computation. You can even get paid for doing them through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk programme. What none of them involve, however, is playing PC games. And while sites such as Artigo (artigo.org unless you want a Portuguese flooring company) gamify things a bit by having you assign tags to paintings while paired with another player, scoring points when your tags match, it’s not exactly AAA. Integrating science into a videogame is tricky. We recoil from anything labelled as ‘educational’, but there’s an opportunity here to do real good. Indeed, what started life as a project to map human proteins in EVE Online in 2016 has, via the classification of exoplanets in 2017, come right down to Earth with a project to detect and measure the chemical characteristics of cells—known as flow cyclometry—which has a bearing on the body’s response to COVID-19. EVE calls this Project Discovery, and you access it by clicking the logo in the Neocon menu. Take part, and you can earn exclusive cosmetic customisations for your EVE character.