With so many people stuck in their homes and looking for something meaningful to engage with, it seems that Citizen Science Month has come at just the right time! Citizen Science Month is a collaboration between SciStarter and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. For those of you who haven’t heard of Citizen Science before, I’ll give you a quick rundown. In scientific research, oftentimes the most energy intensive part is gathering data required to reach reliable solutions. Citizen Science empowers members of the public to gather useful data in so many different ways; from monitoring the natural world, using smartphone sensors to record environmental conditions and even, you guessed it, gaming!
If you are interested in engaging with Citizen Science Month, without gaming, have a look at these articles about 7 Ways you can Take Part in Online Science Projects and Activities from Discover Magazine or Citizen Science-ing where you are from SciStarter.
Here are a few games where you can advance global scientific understanding while you play:
Since Borderlands 3 came out in September 2019, it has released so much extra content in addition to its main story campaign, and players world-wide have spent many hours shooting and looting their enemies and saving the in-game world. Now, the game’s latest offering; Borderlands Science, allows players to put those hours towards helping benefit the entire scientific community. This collaboration between McGill University, Massively Multiplayer Online Science, and the Microsetta Initiative gives players the ability to sequence DNA strands of microbes that exist in the human gut, to help the scientific community better understand links between these microbes and various diseases and conditions such as diabetes, depression, anxiety, obesity and more.
‘How are you going to do all this complex DNA sequencing in-game?’ I hear you ask. The answer’s very simple – you play an arcade game! If you have the most updated version of the game, all you have to do is get on board your interstellar home-from-home, Sanctuary III, and go to Tannis’ Lab, where you will notice an arcade machine on which you can complete a series of block puzzles that earns you rewards you can use in the main game.
(Screencap from Borderlands 3)
The puzzles themselves have been fun to play, especially as you challenge the scores of some of the game’s iconic characters and get some fun interactions with them. But as simple as the puzzles seem, they link up to the massive amounts of microbial data collected by the Microsetta Initiative, with the different coloured blocks representing different nucleoids that you need to organise into their correct rows. The data represented by the puzzles is data that has already been sequenced by computer analysis, but is riddled with errors and in need of a human to look over, with gamers being ideally suited to the task as their brains are already wired to observing patterns and solving puzzles. For more details and more science, check out this video from Mayim Bialik, an actor, PhD scientist and researcher, who you might know better as Amy from The Big Bang Theory.
(From Borderlands’ Instagram Page.)
If you were wanting to do something specifically to do with combatting the current COVID-19 pandemic, then playing Foldit on your laptop or desktop computer could be one of the best ways of doing so as a Citizen Scientist. Foldit is a game developed by the University of Washington, and has a track-record of benefitting the scientific community since its release in 2008. The game has you ‘folding’ protein chains in 3D space, by simply dragging and clicking their component parts, awarding you points for the most effective design possible. Proteins are integral to the essential functions of our bodies as well as many diseases our bodies might face, so understanding protein structure is critical to improving our body’s functionality and combatting disease. Work done by Foldit’s gaming community has already contributed to research into combatting HIV, AIDS, Alzheimer’s, various cancers and, in a slightly different vein, plant conversion to biofuel.
Foldit recently released its new Coronavirus Challenge to call on players to design a protein that can be used as an anti-viral drug. Top designs will be tested and, if successful, be the first step of designing a treatment for COVID-19. Foldit explains that the coronavirus ‘spike’ proteins work by binding to human receptor proteins. What they want players to do in this new challenge is to design a new protein that can bind to these aggressive spike proteins more regularly than human proteins to block coronavirus to human protein interaction.
Like many good games, Foldit has a nice gentle tutorial with good positive reinforcement through text guidance and music as you learn how to fold protein. If you are hoping to dive right in to find a treatment for Coronavirus, I would recommend starting with their regular folding challenges first, as the Coronavirus Challenge ones are pretty tricky for beginners. It is important to remember that if you are stuck, help is available through the chat menu and the various videos and updates on the Foldit website and YouTube. Follow the link to the website if you are interested in downloading and trying Foldit on your MAC/PC.
Mezurio is a an app you can get for your smartphone that supports the Gamechanger project as it collects data to aid research into Alzheimer’s and dementia. Gamechanger is supported by the University of Oxford and the Alzheimer’s Society. Its focus is on identifying the early signs of Alzheimer’s in order to slow down, or possibly even prevent the condition from progressing in sufferers. It does this by observing what ‘healthy cognition’ looks like in individuals from a variety of backgrounds.
That’s where you come in! If you join up to Gamechanger and download the Mezurio app, you will be asked to complete daily challenges for a month that will last about 8 minutes each. These challenges are mostly quickfire games that test your reaction time, your memory, as well as checking in on your mood and sleep. All the data it collects about you is managed securely but the University of Oxford and goes towards their important research. In order to register, you’ll need to follow this link, be 18 or over, not have a diagnosis of dementia, and, of course, have a smartphone. After that, you can commit to this 8 minutes a day to help their research, but you are also free to withdraw at any point.
Any game you want!
A while ago, my partner, Megan, raised money for Macmillan Cancer Support by doing a sponsored 24 hours of gaming through Macmillan’s Game Heroes scheme. For anyone who’s never heard of charity sponsored gaming, it works in a similar way to other age-old charity fundraising traditions like getting sponsored to go on a charity run or sitting in a bathtub of baked beans. The fundraising portion of this can be done through setting up a page on a website like JustGiving and you can choose whatever challenge or game you want for yourself, even taking requests from your supporters if you want! Whilst Game Heroes is set up to make it easy to start your fundraising campaign, there are loads of scientific research causes and groups that I’m sure would welcome any fundraising you could do this way. If you’re interested in gaming for charity, it’s up to you, how you do it and who you do it for.