How gamers are helping in the COVID-19 fight

Click to play video: 'Citizen Science: How gamers are helping in the COVID-19 fight'
Citizen Science: How gamers are helping in the COVID-19 fight

Gamers are skilled at fighting it out in fictional worlds, but when the pandemic began, they switched fronts to help scientists in their battle to understand COVID-19.

The idea of harnessing the power of gamers to help scientists with COVID-19 research was born in Reykjavik, Iceland at CCP, an online gaming company best known for its online otherworldly game EVE Online.

British Columbia native David Ecker, the production director for CCP, describes EVE as “a spaceship-driven MMO RPG, so massively multiplayer online game.”

David Ecker is the production director for CCP GAMES based in Iceland. Global News

When the pandemic hit, CPP wanted to find a way to help. It reached out to the medical community to see what it could offer.

“Video games can just be such a strong conduit for citizen science,” Ecker told Global’s The New Reality.

With as many as 250,000 people around the world playing at the same time, CCP literally has an armchair army with massive processing power at their fingertips, Ecker said.

Ecker was put in touch with another Canadian, Ryan Brinkman, a research scientist working at the BC Cancer Research Centre.


“Ryan’s like the coolest scientist I think I’ve ever met or envisioned. He’s not just a lab coat kind of guy on this,” Ecker said.

Ryan Brinkman is a research scientist at the BC Cancer Research Centre. Global News

In order to understand COVID-19 and its impacts, you need to look at how human cells are being impacted by the disease. The current state of the art for doing that is something called flow cytometry.

“Flow cytometry data is a technology we use to look at cells in the blood. We use it for infection, for immunity, to understand and develop treatments for things like cancer, COVID,” Brinkman said.

It’s an effective method but a time-consuming process. A scientist needs to manually draw circles around dots to identify differences.

“You have people who have gone through years of medical school to understand everything about the disease, and yet they still get stuck drawing circles around a screen, trying to find the needle in the haystack,” Brinkman said.

“You’re effectively paying really expensive people to do really menial tasks.”

That’s why Brinkman is trying to create a computer program that could speed things up — but he needs lots of data to build the algorithm. That’s where the gamers enter the picture. They can help provide much-needed data.

With the help of Brinkman, the team at CCP was able to design a mini-game within EVE Online called Project Discovery – Flow Cytometer. To launch the game they first needed real cell samples from people sickened by COVID-19.

“I made a promise to CCP … we’ll get you the data. I didn’t have a single dataset when we started. I didn’t know where we were going to get the first dataset,” Brinkman said.

The first samples ended up coming from Northern Italy in March 2020. During that time, hospital resources were being overrun by an explosion of COVID-19 cases. Many of the patients required intensive care and ventilation. The number of ventilators available was limited and quickly exhausted, leaving medical teams to decide which patients would receive this critical care.

Ecker understood the gravity and responsibility of utilizing the samples.

“A surreal thing if you really thought about it enough. But it also was, you know, a motivator for us to really push this thing up. Get it to the users. Let’s really start learning something,” Ecker said.

In the Flow Cytometer game, players are tasked with identifying different cell patterns by creating a lasso around them.

Players take a tutorial on the mini-game tasks. CCP also worked to make the game fun and challenging for the players with built-in higher ranks to achieve and with in-game rewards.

Brinkman described the citizen science project as being like having “the biggest lab in the world.”

“I have more people working for me as a scientist than I think anybody else,” he said.

It’s all about figuring out how cells respond in the presence of something like the coronavirus.

“We’re looking for an increase in the amount of certain cells or a decrease in immune or certain cells …looking at what the immune system is responding to or not responding to when that virus occurs,” Brinkman said.

Gamer Mike Dawe has been an avid EVE explorer for more than a decade. Global News

Gamer Mike Dawe, also a resident of British Columbia, has been an avid EVE explorer for more than a decade. As an ambassador for the game, he wanted to join the COVID-19 fight, and at the same time, he was in the middle of his own battle – with cancer.


“When project discovery came out for the COVID research I was just about to start chemotherapy. So this was near and dear to my heart, it was something that I felt like I was getting involved with the science that was affecting the whole planet,” Dawe told Global News.

Brinkman is amazed at the success of the game.

“It’s been incredible. We had no idea the power of citizen science can be brought to this problem where people really want to help and are engaged.”

Gamers have looked at more than 13 million samples — the equivalent of over 510 years of work.

Brinkman is already putting the data to use.

“We’ve taken the data that the gamers have given us and developed some, you know, baby machine-learning algorithms. And we see the performance is really outstripping the current state of the art, which is incredible. And we know it’s only better when the data gets better.”

Data that will help not just the treatment of COVID-19 but in the future could advance research for other diseases like cancer.

It’s something gamers like Dawe are proud to be a part of.

“I have a lot of pride in EVE online in the fact that we are one of the pioneers in this, that we’re trying to be something more than just a distraction from reality, that we are helping the real world by being gamers.”