[25 February 2010]
I did a lot of mining during my first play through of Mass Effect 2. I did a lot more than I had to, and when the game ended, I had thousands of units of resources, while at the same time I’d researched pretty much every upgrade I could. I probably spent more than two hours in excess of what was necessary guiding that scanner around planets, waiting for the squiggly line to spike, and for my controller to start vibrating in my hand. As mini-games go, it’s not thrilling. Of course, it’s not terrible either. The simple system reminds me of what using a metal detector on the beach must be like, which makes thematic sense. The hide and seek element means that technically, I guess, it’s a kind of game, albeit one requiring only patience rather than strategy or skill. However, within the context of a game in which I was heavily invested in building up my crew and doing the best job possible in my quest to save the galaxy, I mined and mined and mined with nary a complaint until now.
But as I scanned and probed, I had a lot of time to think, and I wondered if there was some more productive way that someone could exploit my mindless willingness to mine for the greater good of The Normandy and her crew. The first thing that came to mind was the work being done at reCaptcha.net. We’ve all seen captchas when registering with web sites: you have to identify the word to prove that you’re human. ReCaptcha uses two words instead of one, one is for security testing and the other is a scanned image from an old printed book. By entering what you interpret that the scan as saying, you add to the database of reliable translations of scanned texts, helping to eliminate optical character recognition errors. Obviously the Folding At Home project for Playstation 3 re-purposes the gaming console for some sort of public good, but it just takes advantage of idle CPUs, not the player’s own cognitive skills.
What if instead of playing the hacking mini-game in Mass Effect 2 as it currently exists (which is actually pretty good), the game incorporated some reCaptcha data in that activity? Why not put that gamer brain power to some good use, since we’ve got it doing grunt work anyway? Mining through word recognition isn’t a great fit, I admit, but perhaps, there’s some other form of data crunching that would work. Maybe we could look for patterns in SETI data or help capture transcribe audio for the hearing impaired?
Or, how’s this for a crazy conspiracy theory? How about an espionage themed game where you have to closely examine pictures for signs of signature activities (say enemy troop movements), but in reality, your game is getting fed data directly from spy satellites and you’re doing analysis for the CIA. Oh, and if you do really good at that arcade game with the space ships, you can become the Last Starfighter. Oay, I’m rambling, I know. You know why? Because my brain is melted from so much damned mining! So, can anyone else think of good (or evil) uses to which our gaming drudge work could be applied?