January 7, 2016

Is Gamification useful in Citizen Science?

Our module presentation this semester corresponded to Citizen Science and DIY Expertise, our reference readings were two, a 2011 paper of Delfanti – “Hacking genomes. The ethics of open and rebel biology”, and a 2014 paper of Prainsack, “Understanding participation: the ‘citizen science’ of genetics”. 

However, we focused our presentation more in a brief historical context of the notion of Citizen Science (CS) through some local and international examples. We argued that the term was not new even though its interaction with social media is (Facebook, Twitter). We stated a particular classification –by Bruno J. Strasser-­‐ of citizen science participation, that we all discussed in class and it came into the conclusion that even though this classification was rightful, it was not complete. Finally, and while developing open questions for the presentation, we used the term Gamification. And the question we stayed was: “Is Gamification useful?”

A brief definition of Gamification is: “The application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service”-­ oxforddictionaries.com

While exploring Internet for accurate examples of Citizen Science, we found diverse types of models; in some of them the concept of gamification was more obvious. The example I chose was the “Projekt Roadkill” which is based on users’ reports of death animals on the roads. The user should take a picture, and upload it online on the platform with location added. All the collected information fosters a map, which indicates both travelers and zoologists the places to have special care while driving or where to develop animal conservation initiatives, respectively. Even though in this project there are not point scoring or competition initiatives; due to the sensible character of the project, since in general it is not a pleasant view to find an animal killed on the road and could be disturbing for some people, the platform is designed in a very interactive and easy to follow place. The user uploads his data and then can see how a place (a flag) is assigned in the map. The more data the users collect the more complete and useful the map will be. It is a challenge, and the users understand that gamification rule in that way.

 On the website citizencyberlab.eu, also recognizes the big challenges of getting gamification ‘right’. The importance of a proper design of the game elements so that they are implemented in a way that is meaningful to the users, gamification has to be taken seriously, by also understanding the needs of the users since any of them also has particular motivations to participate. Alike in any other game, the creators have to think in advance all the possible circumstances that might emerge during the game, they should anticipate for possible questions and doubts, and following pattern they should design “The game rules”. I guess that one of the main successful tools for projects like Roadkill is the straightforward directions, as well as the purpose of data collection, answers to questions as “How can I contribute to animal protection with my data collection?” “Who analyzes the data and how is it analyzed?” among others. There is also the possibility of having a personal profile in the website or also users can post it anonymously. Another interesting example I have found was the website Aurorasaurus Project. The aim of this project is to collect auroral observations to further improve the modeling of the aurora and the auroral visibility nowcasting. MacDonald, 2015. There is an interesting point in the paper where the developers described the way they deal with the scientific and technical language. They are aware of the vast diversity in backgrounds of the users and also the complex that to explain the aurora phenomena might be. So, they try to use a not-­‐to complex physics’ concepts but also encourage the users to learn more in some excerpts of the website.

Curtis 2014, remarks that with the rise of the Internet new opportunities to create citizen science have been developing. Some of these have been online Citizen Science games where complex research problems have been re-­‐imagined as online multiplayer computer games. One of the most successful examples is for instance Foldit, which was already mentioned in class by a colleague, and it is often cited as a successful example of gamification in Citizen Science: volunteers playing the protein-­‐folding game were able to devise new strategies for developing proteins which had previously been undiscovered by computational methods -­‐citizencyberlab.eu. After my briefly research in gamification and Citizen Science, I agree in the enormous advantages that might bring to use the concept of games for rising the public interest and valuable contribution to Science.


  1. good point! i also see a big potential here to encourage an interest for science and reserach in children! they are also a good indicator to see if the language used is easy yet interesting enough to keep things going.

  2. This is a very interesting take on gamification and citizen science. Maybe the research of Muki Haklay and his colleagues from the Extreme Citizen Science Lab is also of interest for you? https://www.ucl.ac.uk/excites

  3. I mostly agree Lucía. My only concern about these concepts is that lots of people are doing lots of work for which they will never recieve any credit. However, as they are aware of this beforehand, it must be the case that participation is its own reward, both in enjoying the game and getting the feeling of doing something worthwhile.

    It is really difficult to be cynical about these things, no matter how hard you try!

    1. Barry, I think we have to distinguish between researchers and "normal citizen". I agree that most of work doesn't receive credits. We should avoid for the scientific community, experts and other professional extra, unpaid workload under the title gamification. Thats not fair. But this is from my point of view different for "the crowd" which is not depending on results and scores. If I submit my observation, provide my processor for calculations or search in tons of pictures for specific patterns and can be part of a community. That does not influence my daily life and career. If I am eg top-poster of the week I can feel proud and this encourages me to keep on doing. I am aware about the missing credit but visibility (which can be discussed if nicknames are used) could be an incentive. (see my comment on the Publish or perish post)
      Gamification of activities with a benefit could make them more attractive and is still entertaining.

    2. I would like to add something to this discussion about credit 'gamers' receive or not receive.
      First I want to menton to Walter's comment, that of course scientists have a lot of work load that is not entirely done in research. But additionally to their payment they get credit in the form of being recogniced for the scholarly work (if their publications get recognized and cited). Therefore the also get credit for their unpaid work.

      Now to my remark:
      In the case of 'foldit' that was mentioned by Lucia in her blog entry 'gamers' are mentioned in some publications where their contribution was relevant for the paper. If this unpaid recognition counts as credit, than they also get credit for their work. Even though they are just mentoned as a group and not as a person.

  4. Thank you Lucía. For me the two most important questions around gamification of science are:
    Who is responsible for research designs?
    Who is able/responsible fir making sense out of data gained through science games?

    Or to make it short, how is participation conceived and perceived in citizen science? What does it mean to non-academic contributors if their contribution is designed as part of a game? Do academics really think that publics (in fact anyperson that is not part of the core investigation team) need to be told to have fun with what they are engaging whith, so that they are able to do so? I don't want to offend any game theorists with this but shouldn't academia rather be open to take up game(-s) into the core sets of its theories and methods rather than putting those into the niche of citizen science and by this even deepen the trenches in between of citizen and institutionalized academic science?

  5. (comment as editor)

    In my initial comment as an editor I pointed out that you did not really include an STS perspective in your blog post. This would be problematic in case this blog is considered to be an STS (Science and Technology Studies) blog on Open Science (which is, I guess, not necessarily the case). However, in a reworked version you included an STS perspective by raising the issue of gamifications potential to increase the participative character of science. (Although it could be more critical for my taste.)

    Further I want to mention from an editors perspective that there are still minor mistakes concerning the gramatical structure of view sentences.

    Apart from that I really like your post and see it as an educational text that opens up some interesting aspects of Citizen Science as a phenomenon.