EVE Online is a massively multiplayer online game where players can mine planets, fight other players in all-out war, and fly through wormholes to reach new destinations. Now it’s helping scientists learn more about COVID-19.
Through a citizen science project called Project Discovery, players are able to help scientists in the real world solve problems that need human input, such as helping scientists discover new planets. Over the past year, they’ve been helping scientists learn more about COVID-19.
To date, 327,000 players have completed 1.37 million analysis tasks in-game, which has saved scientists 330.69 years worth of research into how the immune system responds to COVID-19. Speaking to IGN, EVE Online Creative Director, Bergur Finnbogason, explained how the project began.
“This is a project that was initially started by, or at least an idea from, [Massively Multiplayer Online Science CEO and co-founder Attila Szantner] a few years back where he was looking at citizen science projects around the world, all over the internet,” Finnbogason said. “He started seeing this pattern in these projects where basically… these fantastic projects would happen… with super worthy causes… but people would come in, try it once, and then never come back.”
Seeing that people were so quick to drop these projects, the parties involved devised a way to merge citizen science projects with something that would make people want to stick around. That’s where the idea of placing one of these projects in an MMO — a genre with communities of people who do the very opposite of trying something once and never touching it again — was born.
Finnbogason and Szantner said the idea came to them to merge citizen science projects while trying to get input from actual humans with EVE. If the game offered a science project to help real-world scientists, players would be dedicated to it. Thus, Project Discovery was born.
The first Project Discovery project in EVE was centered on identifying proteins in human cells and the second Project Discovery project was centered on the discovery of real exoplanets or distant planets outside of our solar system. Similar to the COVID-19 minigame, EVE players played an in-game minigame to pour through luminosity curve datasets, which represented the brightness of stars as planets passed by them. This helped scientists discover exoplanets in space.
“Our latest installment is this COVID-19 project,” Finnbogason said. “We’ve been running it for almost a year, or exactly a year now, and yeah, it’s super exciting and it’s really turned into a wonderful project.”
If you were to log on to EVE to take part in this COVID-19 project, you’d find that it’s extremely well-implemented into the game. What players are doing when they play the associated minigame is looking at a cluster of multicolor dots. Some are yellow, some are red, some are green, and so on.
“Each dot is a cell,” University of British Columbia medical genetics professor and distinguished scientist of BC Cancer, Ryan Brinkman, said. “It is placed on a 2D graph based on how much it expresses one of many different types of cell surface proteins that can be used to define the cell’s function.”
Players that play the COVID-19 Project Discovery minigame in EVE will see this 2D graph with multicolor dot cells. All they need to do is use a point-and-click system to draw polygons around the main mass of the clusters. Players earn set rewards when they reach specific ranks associated with the minigame. For example, at Rank 5, players earn the Biosecurity Response Team Mask and at Rank 650, they can earn the Marshal Biosecurity Responders Skin.
“Drawing the polygon allows us to count how many [cell surface proteins] are in that polygon,” Brinkman said. “The number in a given population can change according to, for example, disease of a drug and we can look for similar changes in groups of people (sick vs. healthy) to do discovery… or use it for diagnosis.”
How EVE Online Is Helping Scientists in Our World
How exactly is this helping scientists in the real world? Well, the simplest answer is time. Players have completed the equivalent of over 330 years of work scientists would have otherwise had to do to match what players have done.
“The alternative for scientists is to look everywhere,” Brinkman said in regards to how players are analyzing 40 dimensions of data on a 2D plane that speeds up data research greatly. “Scientists can’t do that, though, because to analyze just one sample, it takes an hour… but we have an infinite amount of monkeys, all banging away on typewriters.”
What players are doing is helping scientists better understand how our immune systems are impacted by this novel coronavirus, according to Brinkman. They are doing this by measuring the chemical makeups of cells, a process otherwise known as Flow Cytometry in the world of science, to determine a body’s immune response to COVID-19.
Science projects happening by way of video games isn’t necessarily a new concept. Folding@home, a project that utilized the PlayStation 3 among other processors to help scientists develop new therapeutics by simulating the movement of proteins and protein folding, began as early as 2000 and is still live as of six months ago. Never before, though, has it been done on a scale as large as EVE’s massive playerbase.
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Brinkman said the project is 60% COVID-19 help and 40% machine learning A.I. practice, which is another way this EVE minigame is helping the world of science.
“The other really exciting part is there have been approaches that have been developed to automate this analysis process and they all suck,” Brinkman said. “That’s my life’s work for 15 years and they all [automated analysis processes] suck for various reasons. The excitement right now in the science world is A.I. machine learning. Everybody’s excited about that.”
The reason the processes “suck” is simple: in order for a machine to learn, someone or something has to teach it to how to learn and for the most part, until Project Discovery, that wasn’t possible.
Over 300,000 EVE players have participated in this iteration of the Project Discovery minigame. They are quite literally providing the needed examples of how to analyze data – in this case, COVID-19 cellular data and how the virus affects human immune systems. Brinkman explained this kind of data will accelerate areas of science outside of COVID-19 — areas of science that will have an enormous impact on human health.
Why EVE Online Players Are Participating in Project Discovery
Brinkman said they’re in the thick of everything with this data, with plans to publish findings this time next year – but are players aware of what a simple minigame is doing for the real world, or are they just there for the EVE rewards?
“We’ve seen three categories of players that play this,” Finnbogason said. “One of them is definitely just hardcore into the lore of the game and… playing it for that reason. Then there’s another group playing it for the rewards. I think the largest group, though, is playing it for the science and the rewards are just a bonus and possibly a strong incentive to keep everyone playing.”
Finnbogason said the EVE team worked hard to make this COVID-19 Project Discovery effort feel like something that belonged in EVE. It was really important to the team to theme it to the universe, because “we owe it to our players,” Finnbogason said. He said the team doesn’t want the game breaking the fourth wall or the immersion felt everywhere else in the game.
The first Project Discovery project, the one that tasked players with identifying proteins in human cells, centered around an in-game faction called the Sisters of EVE, who were researching a new emergent race of enemies called the Drifters and their tissue samples. The COVID-19 project, however, is run by an in-game entity called Concord, which is the same entity that ran the exoplanets project.
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There are four other rules the EVE team follows beyond immersion when making these projects: the project must be altruistic in nature, meaning none of the parties involved make any money from the project; they need to be consistent in length, so players always know what they’re signing up for when they play the minigame; they need to produce a sizeable dataset, although players have continued to clear right past the team’s dataset goals; and finally, they need complexity in order to keep people interested.
“There was so much player interest in this project right from the get-go,” Finnbogason said. “We kicked this off last March and everyone just doubled down and jumped on this and it just felt like, and still feels like, people want to help solve this pandemic in any way possible. We’re just super humbled and honored to have had a hand in that.”
The project has been implemented into the game for over a year now, but there’s not much of an end in sight at the moment, or at least, the team isn’t quite sure when a new Project Discovery minigame will happen. They like to stick to one at a time, so the COVID-19-related project is the one for the time being.
“Yeah, so one thing about machine learning is you can never have enough data,” Brinkman said. “That much is clear. The more data sets that we get, the better. Even though we have vaccines, the science of COVID-19 isn’t solved. Like, why is COVID-19 so bad, what is this disease doing to the immune system, why are people losing their sense of smell and taste… there’s all this bad stuff that’s really unique to COVID-19, and we haven’t even scratched that surface.”
The Success of Project Discovery
Project Discovery has been a resounding success, both in its first two ventures and its current COVID-19 venture. It even landed EVE Online a cover story on one of the science world’s premiere publications, Nature Biotechnology, which was the first time a fictional spaceship, or fictional anything, had appeared on the cover of that science journal.
“That, to me, was a sign of scientists embracing what we’re doing,” Szantner said. “They take this very seriously… and can see how large gaming communities [such as that of EVE] can substantially help research projects. That’s a very, very important message.”
Elsewhere in media, Project Discovery has landed the EVE Online team a nomination in the 2021 Webby Awards, and according to CCP Games, they’re currently in first place for the People’s Vote award.
Video games are huge, Szantner said, and as time passes by, it’s important to him that society find new ways for games to impact the world for the better.
“Games are bigger than they’ve ever been,” he said. “It’s a big question of what we can do with them and you know, I think it’s about extracting as much value as possible out of them and that’s basically what we’re doing with Project Discovery. It’s one way to do that, at least. You’re just solving virtual puzzles in a video game, but something as simple as cracking a virtual in-game problem… is doing so much for the real world now.”
Finnbogason said the more they learn about what players are accomplishing with Project Discovery, the more humbling it all is.
“It’s super humbling for us as developers,” he said. “MMOs are so much about building relationships and fostering human interaction, and so this, I think, is yet another project proving that the line between games and reality is merging. It’s a super interesting and exciting time for us and who knows what’s next.”
Szantner said he hopes what’s next is that other developers join in, and some already have. A science-based, citizen science project can be found in Borderlands 3, but Szantner sees limitless potential for what games and their players can do for science.
“I believe this is a very important project, almost like a mission, to show the world that this works,” he said. “Ultimately, the more game devs that jump on board, and the more gamer communities that join, the more we are progressing forward to build practically an unlimited human computation engine.
“It was a miracle to pull off Project Discovery. Now it’s proven and now we can show it works. Now we can show it brings value to gaming communities, game development companies, and science. I think it’s a much easier decision for game developers to come in and implement it into the games… and I hope to see more of it happen in the future.”
Wesley LeBlanc is a freelance news writer, guide maker, and science guru particularly interested in the intersection of science and games. You can follow him on Twitter @LeBlancWes.