Back to blogging in 2020!

The tines of my heart: three or four flavors of head-crabs

What kind of ridiculous title is that?! I am referring, of course, to Derek Yu’s indie game rant about head crabs, and also Adam calling my trio of proposed research interests “prongs”, which has then morphed into “tines” because forks have tines. And then there’s an extra one that doesn’t fit into a research-I-do-at-school category.

Prong #1: The complete pipeline

I’ve worked on two research projects now that actually fit together quite nicely. PointCraft feeds directly off the output from PhotoCity and could even benefit from PhotoCity’s revival, while the artifacts generated in PointCraft could in fact feed back into PhotoCity. Take pictures of something you care about that get used to generate a point cloud, trace the point cloud in 3D to get a cleaned up solid mesh, and if necessary, go back out and take more photos to capture the details that the are missing from the mesh. The whole process is collaborative so that a single person need not follow the entire pipeline unless she wants to, but any person can provide useful input at any point along the way: by taking photos, but pruning out erroneous photo matches in the point cloud, by modeling a mesh, and by marking the areas of the model that need more data.

Prong #2: Repurposing “gamification” for good

Currently, when crowdsourcing researchers hear the term “gamification”, they think of how to incentivize people to do work without having to pay them. I advocate borrowing rule systems, mechanics and interfaces from games to design better (richer?) crowdsourcing systems. Not for “motivation” or to candy coat an otherwise dull task. Crowdsourcing via actual money is useful, effective, and extremely valuable to study the economics of, and the absolute wrong thing to do is to inappropriately replace money with “fun” via what I shall refer to as manipulative gamification. This type of gamification serves to provide extrinsic motivation*, essentially changing the user himself to make him “want” or “need” to perform a task. Human beings seek purpose and want to contribute to goals larger than themselves, and there are certain kinds of tasks (e.g. creative tasks) that people are already driven to do, that need not be financially compensated and in fact would be difficult to assign monetary value.

There is a guy, Daniel Pink (who possibly ripped off someone else’s ideas and rewrote them in a more digestible fashion) who states that the three components of intrinsic motivation are: autonomy, challenge/mastery, and purpose. Games totally nail the first two on the head, and to combine them with a purpose gives you the whole freakin’ package.

I can think of a few groups of related crowdsourcing systems.
1.     Shallow games with a purpose: I don’t actually mean shallow in a bad way (though I do mean manipulative gamification in a bad way). I mean that the action the player takes isn’t that complicated and thus there’s not much of an opportunity to be challenged and develop mastery. Games like this include many of Luis von Ahn’s games, like the ESP Game, Peekaboom, etc. The verification mechanisms in these games are really clever, but I personally don’t get anything out of playing except knowing I’m contributing to a good cause.
2.     Inappropriate use of game mechanics: I’m not going to name names right now (because I don’t feel like looking it up) but I saw a talk recently that suggested using the slingshot mechanism from angry birds to place the appropriate geometric concept on the correct part of a diagram. If you’re just supposed to put the piece in the right place, why use a damn slingshot? It’s just going to make things imprecise and terrible for the kids who know where exactly to put the piece. I’ve also seen a game about typing a word so a beaver can walk over a log without falling into a gap? And matching words while simultaneously playing some sort of space shooting game? It is extremely important to have the mechanics actually fit with the goal, otherwise you’re probably doing whatever Jesse Schell was complaining about (in his rant at the latest GDC (2012) when he lit a $50 bill on fire) and wasting people’s money and time by having no idea what you’re doing.
3.     Complex crowdsourcing tasks that aren’t games: Wikipedia and Open Street Map and other things that people contribute to out of the goodness of their hearts hit those same motivation bullet points we mentioned earlier, but they’re not called games. That’s fine! That’s good! But they could be games. (Possibly, or it might make them seem too cheesy and drive people away. But it could drive other people in!) (Actually I think there’s something particular about providing information/knowledge that means you should take things seriously and not turn it into a game) Think about it like this: take a system like one of the above, see if any of the actions that people do map onto actions that players commonly perform in games, and then reframe the task as a game. Thinking about something as a game could give people a familiar handle to latch on to so they can understand it better. It could also attract people who are okay with the role of “gamer” but don’t want to take on the new, more specific, official-sounding role of “contributor to Wikipedia” or “mechanical turk worker”. Maybe that’s too much responsibility, whereas a game seems more accessible, easier to try out.
4.     Complex crowdsourcing tasks that are games: This category is TOO SMALL and that is why I care about this at all. I can think of multiple scientific discovery games (just a few years ago, these games weren’t numerous enough to have their own category but I think they are now!) including Foldit, EteRNA, Phylo, and the unreleased DNA Game that my lab is working on. There is also my previous game, PhotoCity, which is about crowdsourcing the photo-collection process by having players go out into the world and use real cameras to take photos. Luis von Ahn is also developing a language learning game called DuoLingo that will magically translate text AND teach its participants a new language. Of all these games, PhotoCity might be the simplest in terms of having parallels to traditional games – you try and capture territory on a map and turn the flags into your team’s color and maybe spawn more flags – because the scientific discovery games especially have had to develop entirely new interfaces and come up with really useful feedback mechanisms.

Popping off the stack, or getting out of that crazy list of crowdsourcing things (which doesn’t even include the systems with monetary incentives)…

My point is that there is a lot to borrow from the world of game design that can help structure a crowdsourcing task. Games are all about mastery, developing skills and ramping up the challenges according to your skills, and if we want to crowdsource more complicate things besides labeling images and transcribing text (or breaking big tasks into chunks a la map reduce) we need environments that let them develop their skills over the longer term. ...To be expanded upon!

*There’s something complicated about extrinsic motivation and the badges/leaderboards/points/etc. that get shimmied into other scenarios. It’s not all bad, but I think the good that can arise has to do with these things providing appropriate feedback or some other positive feeling, like discovering the secret recipe in Foursquare to unlock a particular quirky badge. 

Prong #3: World-wide photo graph

This idea stems from the fact that PhotoCity is ridiculously hard to play anywhere outside of UW, Cornell, and a few other choice locations that dedicated souls managed to seed successfully. After telling people about the game, they’d ask, “can I play?” to which I’d say NO, and then feel really bad inside. The servers are down, there’s no disk space, there are no seeds here, the buildings are too shiny, or too featureless, or too tall, blah blah blah. That is a pretty depressing motivation; so let me try to explain what this inspired. It’s the 3D reconstruction technology’s fault that certain environments work so poorly. There is still probably enough information in these pictures to match them to nearby pictures, though, without trying to produce a 3D model (which requires a LOT of matches).  I think there could be a lightweight version of PhotoCity that lets anyone anywhere take a single photo, and if it’s near something else, it matches. If not, it just dumps in in an approximate location on a map, and maybe someone else will come a long and take a photo that connects to it. There would be two outcomes to this: 1) I can tell people about this game and they can immediately go outside and play/contribute. 2) A graph of all these photos and their connections grows over time as people add more photos (and it’d be situated on a map of the world, too) so you’d see these splotches growing and webbing out and merging all over the place. There could be games within this world, like find all the fire hydrants or use a chain of photos to connect the library to the bookstore. Or make the longest path or the shortest path or discover hidden photos by exploring an area until one of your photos matches the hidden one. (Going totally reverse order of how this should be motivated…) The best part of PhotoCity was that you could play it in a way that no other game can be played – by taking pictures with a camera – and it’s a new and crazy and kind of surreal experience. (The closest experience I’ve had is a friend Adrian’s ghost-hunting game where you walk around with a phone that tells you how close and in what direction a “ghost” at a particular GPS location is, and you wind up walking around a familiar environment following a totally abnormal path.) I would like to make this game, because the photography and the game elements and the system architecture would be really, really interesting to me. It’s also highly likely that, if successful, the data collected could feed computer vision researchers a new type of treat they’d never tasted before.

Prong #4: Secret projects

  • Sketch-a-bit investigation (using grounded theory)
  • A photo version of Sketch-a-bit

The thing that interests me in both cases is observing how other people will interpret and evolve the artwork of others. Sketch-a-bit has some really interesting examples of how artwork evolves or how games are played or how conversations take place (over time and between anonymous users who have no guarantee of actually finding their way back to a past conversation). I would love to have the photo version as a challenge for myself, and to see how others have different answers to the same posed question. I also really enjoy the unguided nature, how once you start the chain reaction, no further intervention is (or should be) needed, and it will likely go in directions never originally predicted.