Anonymous online gamers enable scientific study
by Elizabeth Willoughby
Traditional science fieldwork has empirical foundations, where singular informants are selected based on predetermined criteria. LMU’s Play4Science, however, is using crowd sourcing instead. How are anonymous online gamers providing valuable scientific data?
Three years ago, Professor Thomas Krefeld of LMU's Romance Philology Department was asked to join Play4Science, a three-year project funded by German Research Foundation (DFG) to develop game platforms that could obtain information important for sciences. Krefeld was hesitant.
At the time, History of Fine Arts' Professor Hubertus Kohle, with the help of LMU's Informatics Professor François Bry, had created an online game to improve search results, which use text, for images on the web. Players in Hubertus Kohle's game, Artigo, suggest tags to apply to the millions of fine art reproductions so they can be found on line more easily.
Such anonymous crowd sourcing research flies in the face of traditional practices, but when Thomas Krefeld saw Artigo, he understood its potential and set to work to create a linguistics game along similar lines.
A new game is born
Launched in mid-August, Metropolitalia aims to study if and how much Italy’s largest cities disseminate and enforce “neostandard” forms of Italian. It does this by gathering primary data (linguistic examples) as well as metadata (region, age range, education level and gender associations that belong to the linguistic examples). A player is given a phrase in a regional dialect from the game’s library, and a translation of it in standard Italian if she or he wants, and earns points by suggesting where in Italy the word is used, down even to a specific village if possible, and specifying other attributes such as if it is spoken only by young people. Players should also submit regionally specific words to the game’s growing library.
Debora Francione, an Italian PhD student at LMU, plays Metropolitalia regularly. Pleased to be able to contribute to research on her own language, Debora says, “I’m astonished at how many dialects exist in my country and how much they can vary in close proximity. I have learned some area specific expressions that I would otherwise never have known.”
All about numbers
Unconventional science study it is, but Professor Krefeld is convinced that it will work as long as there are enough players. Linguist student Katharina Jakob, who has assisted in the fine tunings of Metropolitalia, is now tasked with its marketing – online, naturally. Thomas Krefeld is hoping for at least 10 thousand players: "Without echo, it would be dead, but this you can't control."
One special feature – a search function that reveals all the statistics gathered about a word thus far – was designed into the game so that it can be used by other scientists as well, say for a psychological study on aggressiveness that is linguistically founded or a study of the linguistic distance between generations.
Professor Krefeld sees applications for Metropolitalia outside of the science sphere as well, like for an Italian to confirm if a common word in one region is considered shocking in another, or a language teacher who wants to teach regional Italian instead of textbook Italian. Plus, the game could be replicated to study other languages.
Katharina Jakob views such games as important contributions to the "e-humanities" and wants to see new digital methods become established and developed. "You don't have to study informatics, you just have to collaborate between the different institutions and disciplines."
"During this last year of the project, we hope our colleagues in other disciplines will go in the same direction," says Professor Krefeld. "I would like to see crowd sourcing games develop into every area of scientific study, to see web-based research as a new kind of empirical foundation for social sciences. Economics could be interesting to learn how stock exchanges are seen, social psychology, scientists who work with stereotypes. The tools are available to the scientific community."
Motivators, dreamers, thinkers, challengers. Who can I interview for your website or magazine?
Please contact me to discuss your current needs.