If you had to come up with various excuses to play videogames, now there is a genuine motive, for science. Even if sounds ridiculous your puzzle-solving skills inside a game can help scientists. The creators of Borderlands 3, a first-person looter shooter game, have built in a data sequencing minigame that can even help scientists understand the novel Coronavirus better.
If you are still in disbelief that it cannot work that way, let's explain. Borderlands Science program wants to achieve what Foldit and EteRNA's OpenCRISPR have done. By using the problem-solving skills of millions of gamers, they want help in sequencing DNA or RNA that might have taken longer.
Researchers from Borderlands Science have published a letter titled, "Levelling Up Citizen Science", in the scientific journal Nature, outlining their motive. In a test run, Borderlands Science, a tile-matching minigame was added to its April 2020 update. Each puzzle in the minigame is "made of fragments of microbial 16S ribosomal RNA gene sequences" that were collected by the American Gut Project.
The collective computation machine harnessed the power of players trying to solve the puzzle simultaneously and the results were aggregated to improve the sequencing. The game can be accessed from the arcade cabinet in Sanctuary III.
Leveraging the Fanbase
The authors of the letter — McGill University's Jerome Waldispuhl, Rob Knight of the University of California and three other game developers — said that their initial experiment generated about 10,000 to 15,000 work hours per day. It was due to the huge popularity of the AAA game.
"At first glance, the match between the user base and the scientific problem seems unlikely. The fast-paced, first-person shooter–looter game filled with dark humor is primarily designed for gamers seeking adventure and action," the authors of the letter said adding that such initiatives can leverage a strong online community.
It's difficult to get that many people take part when you tell them that they are going to play a scientific puzzle. But it's the opposite when an already established fanbase is asked to play a game that can solve a real-life scientific problem. Researchers believe scientific deployment in the Borderlands universe is an opportunity to engage people who otherwise might not be interested in science.
"A deployment in the Borderlands universe offers an opportunity to reach a public not particularly exposed to science, while at the same time it opens the door to a large and strong online community of players who can carry and amplify the impact of this initiative," they added.
What Does the Future Hold?
With the success of 16S RNA sequencing, the researchers believe the same framework can be applied for other projects such as soil samples from the Earth Microbiome project or the shotgun metagenomic sequencing. According to them, the same framework can help scientists study the spread of the novel Coronavirus and factors that influence the susceptibility to COVID-19.
"Applications such as aligning Coronavirus genome sequences highlight the impact that partnerships with the video game industry may have during emergency situations when the scientific community could benefit from a platform that quickly mobilizes large numbers of participants to complete urgent tasks," the authors said.
While the idea is still at a nascent stage, games such as Foldit or OpenCRISPR have proved the online science discovery games can be used as a problem-solving tool for a real-life problem or here, in this case, scientific research.