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Over 4 Million Borderlands 3 Players Help Advance Biomedical Research

A simple mini-game solved more problems than AI could.

Gamification is a trend in plenty of fields, but the researchers behind the new "Improving microbial phylogeny with citizen science within a mass-market video game" paper took it to the next level. Around 4.5 million Borderlands 3 players can be proud now as they helped advance biomedical research by simply playing the Borderlands Science (BLS) mini-game. Moreover, they quickly achieved the results even AI couldn't.

There are millions of bacteria living in the human gut, and each microbe has its own DNA. Scientists sequenced this DNA to analyze similar bacteria, but computers proved to be not very good at organizing such information, creating small mistakes here and there. So here is where Borderlands players come into, well, play. 

In Borderlands Science, users are given strands of DNA broken into tiles and they need to match certain blocks in specific lines by adding arrow squares.

Image credit: Gearbox

"In the BLS mini game, the player sees 7–20 sequences of 4–10 nucleotides (the size of the grid changes with the difficulty level). Each sequence is displayed as a vertical pile of bricks, each color representing a random base. The bricks are collapsed (all gaps are removed), and the player is then asked to insert a finite number of gaps to improve a score determined by the number of bricks correctly aligned to the guides. These targets, located on the left, display the most common nucleotides in the corresponding alignment column. By inserting gap tokens, the player is using their natural knack for pattern matching to realign a region of the scaffold alignment."

This helped the researchers identify errors in computer analysis, and in just half a day, the Borderlands Science players collected five times more data than the creators' previous game, Phylo, had collected over a 10-year period.

"I'm proud that Borderlands Science has become one of the largest and most accomplished citizen science projects of all time, forecasting the opportunity for similar projects in future video games and pushing the boundaries of the positive effect that video games can make on the world," said Randy Pitchford, the founder and CEO of Gearbox Entertainment Company. 

Image credit: Gearbox

The researchers want to use this information "to relate specific kinds of microbes to what we eat, to how we age, and to the many diseases ranging from inflammatory bowel disease to Alzheimer’s that we now know microbes to be involved in."

So now Borderlands Science players are mentioned among the authors of the paper, which can be found here. What a fantastic use of free time!

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