EVE Online: Harnesses the Power of Gamers to Fight Cancer

There are times when Laissez Squares encounters a topic absolutely perfect for us to address. We talk a lot about EVE Online and its innovations and unique free market structure. We also discuss charity, especially when it involves some interesting innovation, technology, or nerd culture tid-bit. EVE Online has outdone themselves in a perfect storm of things that interest us.

EVE Online just finished Project Discovery, a brilliant scheme to harness the awesome brainpower of its user for the good of all humanity. Project Discovery is a joint initiative with the Human Protein Atlas, a Swedish scientific research program which specializes in categorizing proteins, with an emphasis on the mapping of cancer tissues. The plan is to have players in EVE categorize millions of proteins within a minigame that connects seamlessly to the narrative of the game. In exchange for their time, CCP (EVE’s developer) is offering gamers who participate in-game, virtual incentives to solve a real problem.

By their very nature, gamers love puzzles and problems to solve. EVE players also happen to be masochistic when it comes to how difficult they like their challenges. In an interview with WIRED magazine, Project Discovery’s game designer Linzi Campbell explained, “We show them an image, and they can change the color of it, putting green or red dyes on it to help them analyze it a little bit better. Then we also show them examples – cytoplasm is their favorite one! We show them what each of the different images should look like, and just get them to pick a few that they identify within the image. The identifications are scrambled each time, so it’s not as simple as going ‘ok, every time I just pick the one on the right’ – they have to really think about it.” The Human Protein Atlas is taking the knowledge gained from the Human Genome Project and looking at what proteins make up those genes.

Emma Lundburg is the director for the sub-cellular chapter of the HGA and also spoke with WIRED. “We have about 20,000 genes and right now we haven’t even proven that more than 70 per cent even exist. So there’s a big gap between protein research and DNA research, and there are several reasons for that,” says Lundberg.

“DNA you can amplify so it’s easy to study, but you can’t amplify proteins. Also, as all cells have the same DNA, you can [just] take a blood sample [to look at]. But proteins, that’s the genes that are expressed, vary through the body. You have to cover the whole body and so it’s a lot more difficult, from a technological point of view, to study proteins,” she continues. “From my point of view, that’s the interesting part – proteins are the molecules that perform the function, and drugs act by targeting proteins. So if you want to develop better drugs, understand how humans work, or understand biology, you have to know what the proteins are doing.”
“But we’re nowhere near knowing that, so what we’re doing is making a map of where the proteins are. If we know a protein is in the liver, in the mitochondria, then okay, it might be modelled in these processes that researchers can take cues based on that. Researchers can say ‘OK, I’m studying the liver – which are all the proteins that are localised in the liver?’ I’m interested in energy metabolism, which are the mitochondrial proteins in the liver, which might be how other researchers might use it.”

EVE Online is one of the last subscription MMOs left, and one of its lures to gamers is that CCP, releases regular expansions so that the game is constantly growing. Arguably the largest change to the lore of the game in years has been the emergence of the mysterious Drifter faction. Within the narrative of the game, no one knows anything about these Drifters besides that they are incredibly powerful and that they are attacking in star systems that have been considered safe up until now. Such an alluring and dangerous mystery has led to player speculation and theories the likes of which EVE hasn’t seen in years.
Project Discovery fits into the universe of the game as a project undertaken by a very powerful NPC religious organization called the Sisters of EVE. The Sisters typically focus their efforts on humanitarian aid and scientific study for the betterment of the universe. Now with the emergence of the Drifters, The Sisters of EVE have requested the aid of anyone able to lend assistance into researching the DNA of these Drifters in order to understand and defeat them. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a player of EVE Online and not too long ago my favorite ship was blown up by Drifters. I spent the next 2 hours sorting proteins out of revenge for my brand new Falcon class starship).

Also in the same interview Lundbug says, “We’ve had an amazing number of classifications, way over our greatest expectations. Right now, after six weeks, we’ve had almost eight million classifications, and the players spent 16.2 million minutes playing the minigame. When we did the math, that translated – in Swedish measures – to 163 working years. It’s crazy.” When asked about her expectations she said, “We had a little guess, internally. We said if we get 40,000+ classifications a day, we’re happy. If we get 100,000 per day, then we’re amazed. But when it peaked in the beginning, we had 900,000 classifications in one day. Now it’s stabilized, but we’re still getting around 200,000 a day, so everyone’s mind-blown. We never expected it.”