Tuesday, August 14, 2012

An average American has played an estimated 10,000 hours of video games by the age of 21. Imagine if these human players could subconsciously solve large-scale computational problems without sacrificing their enjoyment of the game.

Christopher Harris, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Iowa’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Informatics, and his colleagues are showing that well-designed games provide a powerful incentive for people to perform mundane tasks that computers cannot—such as labeling images and making common-sense judgments.

Harris, a student in the Informatics Program’s information science subtrack, had his work presented by a colleague at SIGIR in Portland, Ore., Aug. 15, 2012. SIGIR is an acronym for Special Interest Group on Information Retrieval.

Harris and his mentor, UI faculty member Padmini Srinivasan, collaborated with two universities in the Netherlands to examine how they could use game design techniques, game thinking, and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts for some tasks that humans find easy, but computers cannot do well.

“We looked at making the tasks more enjoyable for players while at the same time increasing quality of their output,” Harris says. “We found that this is indeed possible in many situations through the use of a game format, and we illustrate this through a number of large-scale experiments.”

Harris says a number of “Games With A Purpose” have been introduced that enable the players to train the computers to solve problems for humans all over the world. Such games include ESP game (which became the Google Image Labeler), TagATune, Verfbosity, and Picture This.

The acceptance of his paper at SIGIR was a significant accomplishment for Harris.

“SIGIR is a highly-selective conference in the field of information retrieval, which is my Ph.D. research area,” Harris says. “Having this research reviewed by the leading experts and presented at a top conference in my field provides useful feedback and improves my research as well as expands it in new directions.”

Informatics joins information technology with the humanities, arts, and the social, natural, and applied biomedical sciences in creating the power to effect changes that are both permanent and profound as problems in our everyday world are identified and solved.

This interdisciplinary approach to research is present in Harris’ work.

“A part of my research is how to successfully accomplish the gamification of tasks—particularly those tasks that have been difficult for computers to perform,” Harris says. “This area involves a blend of economics, psychology, and computer science.”

Harris says the UI Informatics Program has helped him pursue his goals by encouraging him to take a multi-disciplinary approach to gathering, processing, and visualizing information.

“Students are able focus on a core domain or area of interest and develop skills in handling and analyzing large amounts of information,” Harris says. “Not surprisingly, the area of informatics is growing quickly, and the number of potential applications seems endless.”