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Citizen Science and Knowledge Games

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses the concept of citizen science, and how it can be embraced by game designers.

Sande Chen

September 12, 2017

5 Min Read

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topics of Social Impact Games, Wearable Technology, and Gamification.]

On Monday, August 21, 2017, residents of the contiguous United States witnessed a total solar eclipse for the first time since 1979.  Because of the rarity of the occurrence, which will not occur again in the U.S. until 2024,  hundreds bought special eclipse glasses to watch, but some members of the public, as citizen scientists, aided in scientific research by sending temperature data to NASA or by recording animal behavior in a citizen science app like iNaturalist. Amateur photographers contributed to a time-lapse photo spread of the eclipse. Through the combined efforts of researchers and the public, a large amount of data was able to be collected about the total solar eclipse.

Total solar eclipse August 2017

Citizen science, which engages the public to participate in scientific research, is not a new practice.  Communities of citizen scientists have been active in mapping the stars, counting butterflies, watching birds, and monitoring coral reefs.  Could such communities be galvanized as game players, who through the process of playing games further scientific knowledge?  Associate Professor Karen Schrier, Founding Director of the Games & Emerging Media program at Marist College, asks this very question and more in her book, Knowledge Games.

FoldIt, the protein folding puzzle game, is the most well-known example of this type of game. As documented in the article, "FoldIt Gamers Solve Riddle of HIV Enzyme Within 3 Weeks," the results from FoldIt players has led to scientific breakthroughs, research papers, and in improvements to AI algorithms. Yep, it turns out humans are better than computers at solving certain types of puzzles, especially those requiring intuition and a basis in cultural understanding.

In the past, I had an interesting challenge:  to design a game to generate data about obesity rates and general health indicators over a period of a year.  The project at first had more of a gamification focus and then morphed into the ARG Lumeria.  It provided insights on designing and writing for wearable technology, which would serve as the main way of data collection.  But Schrier argues that these games are more than just about gathering data, but about increasing knowledge, which is why she uses the term, knowledge games, instead of other terms like "crowdsourced games" or "citizen science games."  Data needs to be contextualized, analyzed, and interpreted.  Games like Happy Moths and Galaxy Zoo, which involve classification and categorization of images, do seem to be more about data sets, but as mentioned above, FoldIt and experiments like bullying sim SchoolLife have demonstrated that the intuition shown in human thought processes may be used to improve algorithms or model behavior.

At present, there appears to be three design approaches for knowledge games.

  • Gamification  -  In games like Happy Moths, players receive scores based on tasks.  The common highlights of gamification are present: leaderboards, high scores, badges, game elements rather than gameplay.

  • Separation - In some games, like Reverse the Odds, the gameplay is separate from the knowledge-producing task. Instead, players in Reverse the Odds classify cancerous cells in order to earn potions to continue or better gameplay. 

  • Integration - In games like FoldIt, the gameplay is essential to the knowledge-producing task. FoldIt players use the same tools as scientists would, but that is not necessarily the case. In Play to Cure: Genes in Space, players pilot a spaceship and by doing so in an optimal way, DNA microarrays from breast cancer research are analyzed. However, Schrier states that not all of these games are integrated fully or well, which may make the game feel like a construct, or wrapper, for the knowledge-producing task.

Besides the design of knowledge games, Schrier tackles many issues in her book concerning knowledge games, including the ethics of possibly profiting from such volunteerism (would they be player laborers?), or even the ethics of creating such games since they may not even be created for social good. Do knowledge games need to promote social change?  There is also concern over who exactly is contributing and playing and if this "wisdom of the crowds" is acceptable.  "What if," Schrier muses, "players work through the possible scenarios to tribal peace in The SUDAN Game, and the resulting finding is that two of the tribes need to be decimated?" These are interesting questions for interesting times.  We may need to continue our exploration into knowledge games by creating more knowledge games.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.  

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Sande Chen


A co-founder of Writers Cabal, Sande Chen works as a game writer and designer. In 2008, she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing. While still at film school at USC, she was nominated for a Grammy in music video direction. She can be reached at: [email protected]

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