Borderlands Science could be used to help study COVID-19

Borderland's bounty hunter Lilith

As strange as this may have sounded a few years ago, Borderlands 3 has now appeared in a scientific journal. In a letter published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the researchers behind the Borderlands Science program outline what they’ve been able to achieve by building a data sequencing minigame into a triple-A videogame, and offer suggestions on how it might be used in future studies.

Jérôme Waldispühl, a scientist at Montréal’s McGill University, and his co-authors (including one Randy Pitchford) write in a letter titled ‘Leveling Up Citizen Science‘ that Borderlands Science has generated a level of player engagement that’s an “order of magnitude” higher than previous attempts at using games to help solve scientific problems.

Borderlands Science, which was added alongside an update to the FPS game in April, uses a simple tile-matching game (which you can access via an arcade cabinet on board the Sanctuary III) as a collective computation machine that harnesses the power of every player solving puzzles to help scientists align microbial 16S rNA sequences in the human microbiome.

The computational power of the scheme winds up generating between 10,000 and 15,000 hours of work per day. In their previous attempts to crowd-source scientific computation, the researchers write that they had topped out at a couple hundred hours per day.

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“At first glance, the match between user base and scientific problem seems unlikely”, the researchers write. “The fast-paced, first person shooter-looter game filled with dark humour is primarily designed for gamers seeking adventure and action.”

However, Borderlands 3’s huge playerbase has been eager to jump on board, even in a game that’s mainly about shooting at noisy people with a hamburger gun or something similarly absurd.

“The fact that a mainstream shooter-looter action videogame managed to translate a scientific problem to a wide audience of millions of players with such unprecedented success is a clear proof of the validity and viability of the original proposition,” the authors conclude.

Borderlands Science could easily be adapted to take on a vast array of scientific data problems, the authors suggest, including the study of COVID-19.

“[T]he enthusiastic participation of the scientific team at all stages of the promotional campaign is essential for reinforcing the credibility of the project and satisfying the curiosity of the gamers”, they write. “If properly executed, the potential impact of the uncanny partnership of researcher and public is huge.”