PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Games

'The Zooniverse': Where The Grind Actually Matters

There is a niche sub-genre of online activities in which grinding actually creates value in the real world.

I am one of those people who will plot petty revenge on anyone claiming that video games are merely “a waste of time”. This medium has worked hard at being taken seriously, and by this point, you’d have had to be living under one big rock to still think of it as merely a silly pastime. However, there’s one part of gaming that still makes it hard to decidedly consign that embarrassing label to the history books. The repetitious grind still remains at the core of modern game design.

There’s nothing wrong with countless matches of Overwatch or Dota 2 spent on honing your skills, but sometimes when I lift my weary eyes off the screen and notice dawn inching its way into the real world, I can’t help but feel like the whole night spent on one game of Civilization was more or less a waste. The victory screen both validates and in a sense renders every decision that you made in the game meaningless. Sometimes, this finality, this end-of-simulated-world feeling, just leaves a void, and the grind that you had spent most of your time on feels like a waste.

There is, however, a niche sub-genre of online activities in which grinding actually creates value in the real world. A great example of this is the citizen science project The Zooniverse.

Launched at the end of 2009, a successor of Galaxy Zoo, The Zooniverse contains multiple projects in which users are tasked with processing images. These might involve labeling plankton, spotting gravitational lensing effects, or transcribing barely legible letters from the 17th century. These labelled images can then later be used by scientists as the foundation of their research.

To call The Zooniverse a game would be a bit of a stretch. When you "play" in one of these projects, it’s hard to tell how well you’re doing because in most cases the code cannot judge the labeling of a single image. Chris Lintott, a co-founder of The Zooniverse, says:

Feedback is a good thing -- several of our most successful projects have found ways to tell participants how they’re doing whether that’s through the interface itself (like Space Warps) or through a supportive community. What we’re not doing is building games -- something really interesting happens when you embed citizen science in a game, in that it loses its power to make people think that they’re contributing to science. We’ve done research that shows that even adding a set of badges makes the experience stressful, and that this sort of gamification reduces people’s enjoyment of the project even while it is effective in encouraging them to come back.

However, a study of citizen science projects called “'I want to be a Captain! I want to be a Captain!': Gamification in the Old Weather Citizen Science Project" has investigated user engagement with the platform, outlining the way that a narrative could emerge as players transcribed ship logs from the start of the 20th century, which had a very positive effect on player retention. Knowing the flowering heterogeneity of the indie market, I think there is a case for The Zooniverse to be seen as a collection of minimalist exploration games with emergent narrative elements.

These projects were started primarily to help ease the load of scientists dealing with huge datasets, but have done a great deal in fostering lay participation in science and bridging the gap between the land of the living and the ivory towers of scientific institutions. Rick Nowell, a veteran citizen scientist and a major contributor to the discovery of the Green Pea galaxies, says: “through GZ and later Zooniverse I've had access to science that I would not otherwise have had. I've also become involved with Wikipedia, helping write lengthy articles on Galaxy Zoo, Pea Galaxies and Citizen Science. These are activities it is likely I would not have done otherwise. I've also met with people through meet-ups in Oxford and London, such as 'Zookeeper' Chris (Lintott), a co-founder, and international scientists that have broadened my mind considerably. GZ has done a lot for me and I hope I've given a lot back.”

The Zooniverse has been received well by both the public and the scientific community, and to date, its website lists 53 scientific publications that directly draw from its projects. However, unlike traditional video games, which can unambiguously be called entertainment, these projects are marketed as ways to meaningfully contribute to science, a fact which has associated ethical implications. Most importantly, the issue of sufficiently acknowledging the contribution of citizen scientists in any research that comes out is discussed at length in Talk, a social space for Zooites, as well as the requirement that the scientists using the generated data free-of-charge keep in touch with the community and not simply use it as an inanimate source of computing power.

Besides The Zooniverse, other, more "gameified" projects have emerged that provide meaningful spaces for gamers to funnel their time into. Quantum Moves is a puzzle game in which you help build quantum computing algorithms by trying to carry a liquid substance around as fast as possible without it sloshing out, while EyeWire is all about mapping the neuron connections in the brain. The most celebrated of all, however, is Foldit, a game about folding proteins, a notoriously difficult issue to crack with automated problem-solving tools. In 2012, its users figured out the crystal structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus, a tiny retrovirus responsible for causing AIDS in monkeys, which is a feat that’s still held up as a shining example of the untapped potential of citizen science.

Out of all the reasons why gamers decide to launch themselves into hundreds of hours of repetitive content, I feel like the desire to figure out the world that they’re immersed in is most important. Coming up with optimum talent and item combinations in RPGs, unbeatable strategies in MOBAs and how to recreate Minecraft inside of Minecraft is the thrill that keeps people hooked. The never-ending cycle of developers re-balancing their games post-launch is needed to keep their games interesting, to keep their worlds a mystery, after some pesky gamer figures out how to break them. Of course, the real world is the ultimate puzzle and projects like The Zooniverse are finding ways to use our inherent curiosity to, inch by inch, add to the pile of knowledge that might someday lead us to the God-mode code to our own universe.

“So, yes, a successful time has been had! Being involved with science; meeting with the scientists using the data; meeting new friends and getting drunk in posh London restaurants. A good time I'll remember fondly." -- Rick Nowell.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.