EVE Online isn't just a game about internet spaceships and sci-fi politics. Since March, developer CCP Games has been running Project Discovery – an initiative to help improve scientific understanding of the human body at the tiniest levels.
Run in conjunction with the Human Protein Atlas and Massively Multiplayer Online Science, the project taps into EVE Online's greatest resource – its player base – to help categorise millions of proteins.
"We show them an image, and they can change the colour of it, putting green or red dyes on it to help them analyse it a little bit better," Linzi Campbell, game designer on Project Discovery, tells WIRED. "Then we also show them examples – cytoplasm is their favourite one! We show them what each of the different images should look like, and just get them to pick a few that they identify within the image. The identifications are scrambled each time, so it's not as simple as going 'ok, every time I just pick the one on the right' – they have to really think about it."
The analysis project is worked into EVE Online as a minigame, and works within the context of the game's lore. "We have this NPC organisation called the Drifters – they're like a mysterious entity in New Eden [EVE's interplanetary setting]," Campbell explains. "The players don't know an awful lot about the Drifters at the minute, so we disguised it within the universe as Drifter DNA that they were analysing. I think it just fit perfectly. We branded this as [research being done by] the Sisters of Eve, and they're analysing this Drifter DNA."
The response has been tremendous. "We've had an amazing number of classifications, way over our greatest expectations," says Emma Lundberg, associate professor at the Human Protein Atlas. "Right now, after six weeks, we've had almost eight million classifications, and the players spent 16.2 million minutes playing the minigame. When we did the math, that translated – in Swedish measures – to 163 working years. It's crazy."
"We had a little guess, internally. We said if we get 40,000+ classifications a day, we're happy. If we get 100,000 per day, then we're amazed," Lundberg adds. "But when it peaked in the beginning, we had 900,000 classifications in one day. Now it's stabilised, but we're still getting around 200,000 a day, so everyone is mind-blown. We never expected it."
Currently, EVE players are going through images from Lundberg's domain, who serves as director for the sub-cellular chapter of the atlas. It took players just three weeks to get through the entire workload, and are now engaging in a second pass for veracity, with no signs of interest dropping. "Part of the problem with the gamification of science is that participation rapidly drops and that's what we hoped we could prevent by doing it in an existing game, with rewards," says Lundberg. "I think that's the biggest difference, that it's integrated into the game."
The Human Protein Atlas itself is expanding on the mapping of the human genome, but at a much smaller level. "We have about 20,000 genes and right now we haven't even proven that more than 70 per cent even exist. So there's a big gap between protein research and DNA research, and there are several reasons for that," says Lundberg.
"DNA you can amplify so it's easy to study, but you can't amplify proteins. Also, as all cells have the same DNA, you can [just] take a blood sample [to look at]. But proteins, that's the genes that are expressed, vary through the body. You have to cover the whole body and so it's a lot more difficult, from a technological point of view, to study proteins," she continues. "From my point of view, that's the interesting part – proteins are the molecules that perform the function, and drugs act by targeting proteins. So if you want to develop better drugs, understand how humans work, or understand biology, you have to know what the proteins are doing."
"But we're nowhere near knowing that, so what we're doing is making a map of where the proteins are. If we know a protein is in the liver, in the mitochondria, then okay, it might be modelled in these processes that researchers can take cues base on that. Researchers can say 'OK, I'm studying the liver – which are all the proteins that are localised in the liver?' I'm interested in energy metabolism, which are the mitochondrial proteins in the liver, which might be how other researchers might use it."
Players' efforts will soon be felt in the wider scientific field too. After verifying their categorisations and analyses – a process involving control images that researchers know are correct, used to measure performance of the EVE hivemind – their findings are incorporated into the HPA's database. All data is publicly available, and the atlas has around 100,000 monthly users. Already, an average of two peer-reviewed scientific papers are published every day, and when the next version of the atlas is published in December, future papers will incorporate the EVE players' data.
"What remains to be proved is that players can provide high quality research data, so the scientific community is following us really closely now," says Lundberg. There's already reason to be confident though – players are getting results.
"One example is that there's a very unknown biological structure, which only has three known protein components," explains Lundberg. "Players have identified another 100 candidates. That's a great starting point to discover new biology – that's amazing."
The first round of Project Discovery has been such a success that Campbell sees there being scope to continue, shifting the area of research once the Human Protein Atlas project has concluded.
"The reason we picked the Sisters of Eve was because it makes sense that they would analyse lots of different things," Campbell says. "That's the bonus of creating a framework for this, that we can just swap out the images and put in something else. There's one on cancer cells that we could do, or one on astro planets. If we went with the planets one, we would probably just allow players to eventually determine the location of an unknown planet within New Eden and name it. I think that it could be pretty much just anything, as long as it's sort of biology or space related."