Fancy playing a computer game that helps in the fight against Covid-19?
A group of gaming experts and scientists have built just that with Project Discovery, a space-based game that gives people the chance to contribute to coronavirus research at the same time as testing their observation skills.
In this mini game, which is located inside the dizzyingly massive online gaming universe, Eve Online, players analyse pictures of real cell samples from real patients and are asked to spot patterns within the cell groups.
This data is then fed back to working scientists who use it to analyse the effect coronavirus has on our immune systems.
Bergur Finnbogason, creative director at CCP Games, the Icelandic company behind the game, tells HuffPost UK their idea was to use learnings from popular multiplayer online role-play games and apply them to citizen science.
“It sounded quite crazy and interesting and exciting,” he says. “Initially we just wanted to see if this hypothesis could work, and our players really caught on.”
From obsessive gamers to occasional dabblers, more than 220,000 players have so far taken part in Project Discovery – with 204,000 successfully solving tasks. Finnbogason applauds their “incredible dedication” to the cause.
“I can sense a lot of pride in the community, everyone wants to help and this is a very active way of doing your part,” he says, describing the Eve Online universe as “a beautiful, dark, science fiction alternative reality”.
His colleague, Attila Szantner, CEO of Massively Multiplayer Online Science, which connects scientists and game developers, says he saw the potential early on: “We founded our company based on this very simple idea: is it possible to offer something for gamers inside this virtual world that has real life relevance?”
The challenge is keeping players online long enough to produce valuable data, says Finnbogason. For his team of developers, this means making the game sticky and fun – and definitely not as dry as a game about Covid-19 sounds.
Of course, it also needs to be scientifically accurate, which is where Andrea Cossarizza, professor of pathology and immunology at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, comes in. He has joined forces with Finnbogason and Szantner to ensure the data collected from players can be used in his wider academic research around Covid-19.
“I’ve been working on Covid since the very moment of the pandemic, so knew what had to be done to understand how the virus works,” says Prof Cossarizza.
Explaining the game he says: “It’s like if you take a picture from the top of a parking lot of a number of cars in different colours and you have to recognise cars that have the same colour, then same type of wheels, then the same mirror and so on.
“Recognising different cars – or different cells in our case – allows you to understand which cells are affected by the infection.
“The story is quite serious even if it’s a game.”
The game might be mini, but the results are major. “We have 59.6 million submissions, every submission takes around 30 seconds to do – so we’ve accumulated the equivalent of over 56 years of contribution to the project by players, just to give you the scale of the project,” says Prof Cossarizza.
And the benefits are being reaped directly by the scientists. “Hopefully we’re freeing up time for you guys,” said Finnbogason to Prof Cossarizza, whose team have been conducting experiments like these in labs for 40 years – Project Discovery game is now outsourcing much of that workload.
Could its popularity even lead to some players getting interested in a career fighting viruses and pandemics? “The world will only benefit from more people going into science and stem research,” answers Prof Cossarizza.
In his words, Project Discovery “brings science outside of my lab, outside my university” – and at a time when this research is so urgently needed.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.