Productive Games

Luis Von Ahn didn't really like the premise of the movie The Matrix. He thinks that machines using humans as a power source is just ridiculous. He offers an alternative plot. The machines would use us to solve problems that they couldn’t yet solve. Our silicon based masters would still use The Matrix to trick us with scenarios that would keep us believing everything we did was normal. Behind this veil of normalcy every decision we were presented with would actually solve problems for the machines. Problems that they were not yet optimized or capable of solving would be guised as everyday interactions. Better than a carbon based battery Luis Von Ahn’s Matrix would provide the machines with human calculation cycles.

That’s exactly what Von Ahn detailed in a talk entitled Human Computation he gave at the Google complex. He’s designing productive video games. Defined by him as video games that are fun to the player but do some real world work.

His objective is to transform time that is “wasted” playing video games into time that is productive. He claims that humanity spent 9 billion hours of 2003 playing solitaire. I believe him. I’ve explored this in past blog entries where I talked about how people have spent 28 million hours on Halo 2 X box Live and calculated that it took 7,000,000 Burger King Whoppers to power those people.

Von Ahn’s games take those hours and produce output that is useful. Data that are generated are not just work that could be performed by a computer either. His data provide information that can’t be computer generated yet. Given a picture his games will output proper labels to that picture. The kind of small tasks that you might find on an artificial artificial intelligence job board like Amazon’s MTurk.

Two months after the Human Computation talk Google opened it’s image labeler. It’s a version of Von Ahn’s ESP game. It’s got all the same elements but it’s presented in a little less of a game fashion and more in the “you can be a contributor” vein. PeekABoom, Phetch, and Image Labeler are still about as fun as solitaire, minesweeper, or Freecell.

In his News From the Future column in Make magazine Tim O’Reilly takes opposition to some of Von Ahn’s comments. Von Ahn claims that his games are, “games with a purpose.” O’Reilly takes the stand that all games have a purpose, that playing equals learning. His argument, although much less developed and technical, is similar to James Paul Gee’s. Gee claims that all videogames are learning experiences (even the violent ones) in his book: What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning.

I think that Gee and O’Reilly are talking about learning and exploring in the context of complex video games. I don’t think that a person is collecting all that much new information on her 4000th game of Solitaire. At that point is she just killing time? No. It has got to be beneficial to her brain health, but any more so than watching TV?

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