‘EVE Online’ Gamers Role Play as Covid-19 Scientists

They know everything about saving fictional worlds, but players are now being urged by scientists to lend a hand in one of humanity’s greatest crises – the Covid-19 pandemic. So far, they have risen to the occasion and delivered the equivalent of 471 years of work.

In the multiplayer space opera EVE Online, is called a mini-game Project discovery doubles as a civic science platform that studies the response of the human immune system to the new coronavirus. Participants perform data analysis through gameplay that helps researchers isolate specific patterns as predictors of disease severity.

The project is a collaboration with McGill University, the British Columbia Cancer Research Center, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. To design the civic science component, EVE Online developer CCP Games worked with Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS), a Swiss company that combines scientific research with games to build a seamless gaming experience. According to a spokesperson for CCP Games, there are 426,000 players participating in covid-19 mini-games right now, and they have completed 1.8 million analysis tasks since the project’s launch in June 2020.

In the highly competitive MMORPG field, acquiring and retaining players is an endless challenge. For civic science projects, says Bergur Finnbogason, creative director for EVE Online, player retention is critical. Unlike distributed computing programs like SETI @ Home, which need a lot of computing power, projects like these need human input. And for that, you need players who return to play again and again.

Despite declining numbers, EVE Online remains popular as one of the longest running online multiplayer games-it precedes World of Warcraft one and a half years and has been called “incomparable”. Its vast universe, called New Eden, includes nearly 8,000 star systems. Gameplay is essentially a DIY space opera, where players – called capsule men – embark on epic space missions that include exploration, mining, industry and more. In addition, there is plenty of piracy as well as PvP and PvE battles without obstacles. Between battling for cosmic wealth and glory, capsule men can also take time to increase critical research processes on Earth via Project Discovery. In return, they are rewarded with unique treats in the game, such as exclusive garments and facial enlargements, not to mention the honor of having a hand in scientific breakthroughs in real life.

In Project Discovery’s latest mission, players help researchers study the effects of Covid-19 on our immune system by analyzing blood from infected individuals to disease markers. “We basically built an interface with scientific servers … [through which] you can change data [into the game], ”Says Finnbogason. Players must find and mark cell clusters in the blood of infected Covid-19 patients using a tracking tool.

“Often it’s really easy to see big and dense clusters,” he says, “but when things get very sparse, it’s in a way where the money lies.” Multiple players work on the same data sets to reach agreement on the specific areas of interest. Once the datasets have been sent back to the research lab and verified, a cross-section with a higher resolution of the area is returned to the game for players to look at again.

The process helps researchers locate the areas they need to look at to understand infection in different cell populations and types. The players’ contribution, says David Ecker, production director for EVE Online, helps reduce a host of data-crushing tasks that researchers would otherwise have to perform. Given that there are significantly fewer researchers compared to gamers, he adds, “we can just skip them so many working years so they can [only] look at samples that our players have considered worth looking at. ”

The data from citizen researchers not only help researchers study SARS-CoV2 infections. It will also be training data for artificial intelligence systems so that such processes can be automated in the future. The AIs who are trained can help not only with covid-19 research but also other diseases.


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