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Players Help Scientists Publish the First Game-Powered Study

A team of researchers out of MIT — with the help of thousands of gamers — has just gone a long way in proving the ever-increasing utility of video games. Reporting in the journal Nature last Sunday, Jinseop Kim and his colleagues used the brain-mapping game EyeWire to precisely map the cells of a mouse retina and shed some light on how those cells detect motion.

EyeWire, developed by now-Princeton neuroscientist Sebastian Seung, challenges players to use their mouse and trace the path of neurons in black and white images. Here’s the catch: The images are two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional structure (a neuron). It’s sort of like trying to trace an anthill through the ground by digging at the surface. The game is tricky, but with enough paths through enough slices, 3D images emerge.

EyeWire Gameplay

While EyeWire might be the first “citizen science” game to publish in a major journal, it is definitely not the first citizen science game. The protein folding game Foldit challenges players to fold proteins in 3D. Those gamers helped a computer program that ended up outperforming previous methods. Then, there’s EtaRNA, a game that has players folding RNA and vying for selection for actual scientific testing of their designs.

But EyeWire is certainly the first crowd-powered science-making game. By harnessing thousands of fresh eyes and hands, gamers are hugely speeding up the processes that researchers (or their poor grad students) would have to go through on their own.

120,000 players have signed up for EyeWire, and the game even has a tiered system that keep the results in check. “Scouts,” “scythes,” and “GrimReapers” search for, flag, and overrule mistakes or potential ones. Players are also ranked and chat with each other, lest you think it’s all white lab coats and strict empiricism.

<Riley_Light> my bf is all like, lets watch netflix on your laptop, and im all like, no im busy contributing to science! lol

You can sign up for EyeWire here (who knows, maybe you’ll make it into Nature!).

HT: The Boston Globe, Nature

IMAGES: Image by Alex Norton, SebastianSeung Lab, MIT

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