Game addiction for computation

Posted March 23, 2006

A few days ago I attended a talk by Luis von Ahn on the subject of "human computation". He's the inventor of CAPCHAs, those "type in this distorted word" tests that attempt to differentiate between humans and automated software, and he's been doing some thinking on another side of that problem. Namely, given that we know that humans are capable of doing tasks that computers can't, and moreover are prone to waste a lot of time on frivolous stuff*, how can we put them to work in a useful way without abusing them or simply paying them?

His solution is to make games that perform useful tasks as a side effect of the gameplay. People will "work" for free because the games are fun and even addictive, and the net result is happy people and a big pile of worthwhile un-automatable data crunching. For instance, there's The ESP Game... the goal of the game is to guess what your (unknown, randomly assigned) partner is thinking, and the only leverage you have is a random image that is shown to both players. Naturally, the best strategy is to type words associated with the image, and moreover words that people would naturally think of when they see it. The game collects all these guesses until the two players agree on something, and then assigns reward points.

Guess what, that image has just been tagged in the database: a tedious task that computers can't presently do but which would be really handy to have done on the cheap (think Google image search). Moreover, the quality of the tags is pretty high, since you know that at least two people agreed on them, and you can run the same image through the game as many times as you want to double-check: the labor is essentially free.

This is a clever idea, but it worries me, because humans have bad defenses against addictive behaviors, even ones that they stumble on by themselves. Once you start adding in situations that are purposefully designed to be addictive (rumor has it that Blizzard hired psychologists to optimize the reward schedule for World of Warcraft to make it as addictive as possible), will we end up in the situation of computer games needing to being as regulated as gambling presently is? You won't lose your shirt, but you might lose a lot of your time...

* A sobering statistic included in the talk: in 2003, it is estimated that 9 billion man-hours were spent playing Microsoft Solitaire. That's the entire productive lifetimes of 100,000 people, and for comparison the Panama Canal was built with about 0.2% of that time.