‘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.