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Gaming For The Greater Good

Can gamers help solve genomics or AI problems? At the Game Developers Conference (GDC), developers discuss projects that harness crowds for more than fun.

Among the designers and software engineers at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco pondering the physics of rail guns and annoyed avians, there's a subset focused on applying algorithms and game design principles to problems outside the sphere of entertainment.

Serious games have been attracting civic-minded developers for years, going back to projects like Stardust, Galaxy Zoo, and FoldIt, and therapeutic games before that. Between the recent gamification movement and the shift toward mobile platforms, the definition of serious games has been expanding, from efforts to make work fun, like The Email Game, to ways to coordinate real-world activities like street cleaning using the mission structure of a strategy game.

As part of the Game IT Summit at the GDC Monday, Ben Sawyer, co-founder of game development consultancy Digitalmill, offered an overview of how we can integrate life, work, and play.

These elements traditionally have been like oil and water, Sawyer said, but he insisted that game IT--building game elements into the way we use information technology--can take work and play into new territory. While acknowledging that the best games will remain deeply meaningful, crafted experiences that have nothing to do with points, badges, and social tools, he nonetheless insisted that game elements must become part of the fabric of IT.

[ Will employees compete to stay healthy? Read Move Over Farmville? Health Games For Employees. ]

Panelist Jerome Waldispuhl, assistant professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, offered an example of gamification that's about meaningful social contributions rather than gilding drudgery or manipulative marketing.

Waldispuhl has been working on a game called Phylo, which he described as a human computing framework for comparative genomics. Phylo makes a game out of matching genetic sequences across different species. Finding areas where DNA is similar in different species turns out to be a strong indicator of the importance of that block of genetic information.

"If a mutation appears in one of these regions, it's potentially the cause of a disease," said Waldispuhl.

Internet connected players can log on to Phylo and match simple patterns of squares that represent genetic configurations. Finding genetic patterns that exist in multiple species can help researchers identify the causes of genetic diseases, so Phylo's players are advancing science that may improve human health.

Waldispuhl characterized the project as a way to recycle the energy spent on games. "It's not competition between computer and humans, it's truly a synergy," he said.

Joe Edelman, CEO of Citizen Logistics, spoke about borrowing elements of game play to enhance real world experiences, from customer-retailer interactions to corporate team building for Fortune 500 companies. Through technologies like the company's Groundcrew app, for coordinating event activities through a strategy game framework, and Coordinated Event Markup Language (CEML), Edelman sees a way to create more playful community engagement.

Evan Brown, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, recounted how Lockheed Martin asked CMU to find a way to improve artificial intelligence (AI). "They wanted to see if we could approach this from a unique perspective," he said.

Thus was born Project Augur, which collected data, using Amazon's Mechanical Turk, on how people solved basic game puzzles, for the purpose of refining AI routines. The upshot is that data collection for a serious purpose can be fun and affordable--conducting some 3,600 surveys on behalf of Project Augur cost a total of $470.

Gamification, then, isn't something superficial, like grafting badges onto an activity like reading the news. It's a reflection of the broader social convergence between our work and leisure lives. Work and play are coming together, and where they can co-exist, they can make play more productive and work more enjoyable.

The Enterprise Connect conference program covers the full range of platforms, services, and applications that comprise modern communications and collaboration systems. It happens March 26-29 in Orlando, Fla. Find out more.

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