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Players of 'EVE Online' Are Improving Our Knowledge of Proteins in Human Cells

With "Project Discovery," EVE Online players are helping to classify proteins in human cells.

The space-themed massively multiplayer online game EVE Online typically busies itself with the big picture. We see its digitized inhabitants only rarely, as the core experience thrives hulking interstellar freighters wafting before nebulae or, sometimes, headline-grabbing battles involving thousands of players.

But lately EVE developer CCP Games has traded the stuff of telescopes for that of microscopes for a small part of its game, and science has been the better for it (and science fact, at that, rather than science fiction). With the help of a minigame of sorts called "Project Discovery" that's been neatly wedged into EVE's lore, players now sift through millions of images of human cells and identify proteins by spotting key patterns for in-game rewards.

Like so many scientific projects these days, Project Discovery has a lot of minds behind it. There's the Iceland-based CCP itself, of course, but there's also the Human Protein Atlas out of Sweden, Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS), and Iceland's Reykjavik University.

But Emma Lundberg, an associate professor at the Human Protein Atlas, stands out among the rest. It's her likeness players see in the game, where she's depicted as one of the "Sisters of EVE" who's researching the DNA of the mysterious "Drifters." I spoke with her over the phone recently, and three months had done little to diminish her amazement at the successes of Project Discovery.

When MMOS originally spoke with her and her colleagues about the project, they envisioned around 100,000 participating players at most. Now, though, they've averaging around 100,000 classifications per day from around 6,000 players. Even with around 13 million images to work with, the project's essentially done. As of now, players are going back through and checking the accuracy of the original images.

"It's so much greater than we ever imagined," Lundberg said. "That was our dream goal and now, a couple of months after launch, participation hasn't dropped."

That's a big deal, particularly as she says the Human Protein Atlas' database gets around 150,000 visitors per month and around four papers are published every day that draw from its research. When the atlas gets an update later this year, she says, the player data will be included, thus resulting in a more accurate database. The human element afforded by the partnership with EVE, she says, was essential in getting her and her team to this point so quickly.

"Humans are very good at interpreting patterns," she said, adding she was initially attracted to EVE because of the slow burn of its gameplay, which invites closer study than a more action-packed game. "It would have taken us a long time to look at all these images again and look for those patterns. The players helped us do that in six weeks."

Andie Nordgren, the executive producer on EVE Online, believes the HPA's project is uniquely suited to her game. CCP chose to work with them, she said, "partly because the images are strikingly beautiful and because they felt like something that could come out of a science fiction world." She added that the team has had to tweak some things to make sure the rewards aren't so great that players fudge the data, but she never had many doubts about the interest owing to a belief that EVE's players are "predisposed to be interested in science broadly and to contributing to a worthwhile scientific cause."

Crowdsourcing such scientific data hunts is becoming a bit of a common thing these days, with notable examples including the hunt for supermassive black holes or the careful description of Mars' terrain. But never before have they been so perfectly integrated into a video game, and the success of Project Discovery could be the one small step that leads to leaps across multiple genres. Few games, though, seem as well-suited to the task as EVE Online, which but adds to its wonderfully unique flavor among its peers. After this, Nordgren is ready for more if it the concept fits as well as Project Discovery.

"We're just super excited to keep at this and find the next project," she said.