The virtual world of citizen science

Do you enjoy playing games on the go? Would you also like to contribute to advancing science? Now, utility and pleasure can be combined in the fast-growing field of citizen science gaming.

Image of mobile phone


In her 2010 TED talk on “Gaming can make a better world”, Jane McGonigal highlighted the huge amount of time that is spent by people worldwide playing computer and videogames and what could be achieved if some of this time was spent playing games aimed at solving real-world problems instead. It’s an exciting thought and one that researchers are now embracing through citizen science, by getting ordinary people involved in undertaking scientific work through online games.

Gamification – turning actual research into a game that can be played on a mobile or computer by non-scientists – was the topic of a recent twitter discussion #CitSciChat run by SciStarter, an American-based organisation that promotes citizen science and runs an online database listing projects from around the world.

Key motivations for participation

Participants in the discussion had lots of suggestions on what makes a successful online citizen science game and highlighted that understanding players’ motivations is critical to getting ordinary people to give up their time to get involved in research.

According to Vickie Curtis, who has recently investigated gamification in citizen science as part of her PhD, making a valid contribution to research is the number one motivation for participation. Players need to feel valued and to understand how their contributions are helping scientists, particularly as the tasks can be quite abstract. It is, therefore, important that scientists give feedback and communicate with players, and embrace it as an opportunity to engage the wider public in their science.

It is this feeling of participating in an ‘epic quest’ that is often a key feature of traditional non-scientific online/video games too, as well as other motivations such as the intellectual challenge, competitive or social aspects of a game.

Often players appreciate being part of an online community and some citizen science games involve players working together in teams and communicating with others. Others enjoy the competitive nature of a game, so promoting competition between players with, for example, points and leaderboards, is a good engagement tool. Rewards, such as upgrades to a player’s virtual equipment can also be a way to motivate players. But there was also a warning about being careful not to trivialize people’s contributions, with many players seeing themselves as unpaid research assistants, rather than gamers.

The right game for the right audience

The consensus was that understanding and finding the right target audience to suit the game was key. Just as some games may attract loyal players, equally, others may work well for casual participants and be used in science museums, classrooms and at science fairs as a fun and interesting science education tool.

So what kind of research is best suited to the online game format and why is human input so necessary? One of the benefits of the citizen science approach is that it can help scientists to gather and analyse vast amounts of data that they would otherwise not have the resources to deal with. It is also analysis that is best done by human beings as computers aren’t good enough at recognizing and sorting patterns. The research fields that it is proving to be particularly useful for are mostly linked to biological sciences, for example, helping scientists to better understand, treat and cure disease.

Examples of citizen science online games

One organisation that has embraced gamification and citizen science is Cancer Research UK. In its mobile app, Reverse the Odds, by solving mini puzzles and saving creatures in a magical world, players are in fact helping scientists to analyse real cancer cells. One of the project’s aims is to discover whether bladder cancer is best treated by radiotherapy or surgery.

Examples of other successful projects, include Phylo, in which players are helping to advance research into genetically-based diseases by arranging multiple sequences of coloured blocks that represent human DNA. In Age Guess, participants upload pictures of themselves and guess how old others are, providing scientists with new insights into human aging. Citizen Sort is a natural sciences game, in which you can become an adventurer helping to classify photos of animal, plant and insect species, helping scientists study the natural world.

Although there are now over 100 citizen science online games in existence, it is a relatively new area and one with huge potential. So next time you pick your phone to play a game of Candy Crush or Angry Birds, why not channel your time into contributing to the next Nobel Prize discovery instead.


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  1. paolo manzelli |

    Invitation by EGOCREANET ( NGO-Italy) :[email protected];
    Type of action: Coordination and Support Actions.
    Proposal presented by NGO of R&D at the University of Florence.