This Borderlands 3 minigame will help map the bacteria in your gut

Today, Borderlands 3 is getting a new interactive minigame, Borderlands Science. But this isn’t just another way to while away some time between missions: It will also directly contribute to research in biomedicine.

Players solve puzzles as part of the minigame by connecting colored shapes into blocks of four. By solving the puzzles, players help microbiome researchers by sorting through their data sets and analyzing them more efficiently than a computer could.

Digital Trends spoke with Randy Pitchford, CEO of Borderlands 3 developers Gearbox, and Attila Szantner, co-founder of the Massively Multiplayer Online Science project which connects scientists and game developers, about what players can earn from playing Borderlands Science — and what they may give back to the world as they do so.

An alien body

Within the human body, there is a huge abundance of microorganisms of many different types and species. Together, these microbes from the microbiome, the term for the sum total of all the genetic material from the various microbes in the body.

Although we normally think of organisms like bacteria and viruses as dangerous to our health, only some of the wide variety of microorganisms we host are harmful. There are so many microbes in our systems that they even outnumber our bodies’ own cells, which has led some experts to argue that we are best described not as purely human but as a co-dependent host to these microbes.

Borderlands Science
Gearbox

The microbiome has been identified as playing an important role in all sorts of bodily functions, from supporting the immune system to regulating hormone levels, and is known to contribute to health conditions like obesity. And when the microbiome goes wrong, it can contribute to diseases like arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and fibromyalgia. It has even been linked to neurodevelopmental conditions like autism and psychological disorders like anxiety.

Finding similar microbes

One important but tedious task for microbiome research is classifying the many different types of microbes into genetically similar groupings. Once researchers have collected samples from thousands of sources, someone needs to look at the DNA of each different microbe and decide whether it is the same or a similar species to another microbe, in order to classify it.

Programming language genetically engineers bacteria to heal cells
Sergey Volkov/123RF.com

While computers are extremely good at some classifying tasks, they are not so good at recognizing “near enough” matches. Humans, on the other hand, are very skilled at making quick, rough estimations of similarity which produce near-optimal results.

The classifying of microbes is a somewhat ambiguous task and requires making judgment calls.

That’s why getting humans to do microbiome classification work is so helpful. But most people don’t want to sit down and sort through a pile of dry, scientific data.

Turning the task into a minigame makes it far more engaging, and embedding that minigame within an already popular game like Borderlands 3 means more people will access it and more people will play, generating more research data, Szantner said.

How Borderlands Science works

There are millions of DNA sequences to analyze in the human gut microbiome dataset, and each sequence is 150 nucleotides long. But they are filled with errors leftover from the automated computer analysis.

Players work on small chunks of data by matching up colored tiles to form rows. By matching sequences, players identify errors within the dataset.

“It’s basically an arcade game,” Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford said. “So the solution became obvious. The designers and artists came up with this notion of: What if onboard the hero’s home base, somebody brings in an arcade cabinet? And it’s there as part of the fiction. You’re playing a game inside of a game. So it has its own rules, its own rewards, and its own score.”

Some of the rewards offered for playing Borderlands Science can temporarily carry over and help the players in the main Borderlands 3 game, while others are cosmetic upgrades that players can proudly wear to show off their contributions to the science minigame.

Borderlands Science
Gearbox

The minigame isn’t presented as a citizen science add-on to the main game. Rather, it’s integrated into the world; some players may not even realize they’re working to further science.

Borderlands is a huge and varied universe that has so many different things that players can do and experience,” he said. “So the idea of leaving behind the main objectives for a minute and going off on a tangent because something is interesting or fun is already a huge part of Borderlands.”

Pitchford compared the minigame to familiar titles like Tetris and Dr. Mario, which also involve matching colors and shapes. That familiarity is by design, as the format ideally fits the microbiome data set and the way it needs to be analyzed.

An almost limitless human computation engine

It might seem like an unusual approach to squeeze a scientific analysis project into a fast-paced looter-shooter like Borderlands 3. Most citizen science projects involve the calm classification of data, such as a project to tackle light pollution by classifying images of cities taken from space.

Or there are distributed computing projects like Folding@Home which use spare computer processing power when machines aren’t in use to crunch numbers for scientific projects.

But Borderlands Science is different. The scientists are teaming up with an established fanbase of gamers who are enthusiastic to try new things.

“We can tap into this amazing resource of millions of players who are interested in interacting with this feature in-game,” Attila Szantner explained. “The big difference between distributed computing projects and this one is that in distributed computing projects you are chipping in with your computing resources, but in this project, you are chipping in with your cognitive skills.”

Designing a game that could be used for microbiome classification was a bit different from the normal route of game design, Pitchford said.

“Normally, our mission is to merely create entertainment, and the only objective we have is to make our audience feel gratified by the experience,” he said. “We want the audience to feel like the game is a great use of their time. In this case, we have another goal, which is that the data output from the gameplay experience had to actually be useful for the goals of the medical community. We had to create useful data for solving this problem of classification.”

And as for the potential of such projects in the long term, “I really believe that this can be an almost limitless human computation engine,” Szantner said. “Having millions of gamers contributing to scientific research is a very powerful setup.”

Gaming at the frontier of citizen science

While gaming and medicine research might appear to be concepts far removed from each other, Pitchford said he saw the two as interlinked: “I think that entertainment is one of the most valuable things we have as a species. The fact we can experience joy and happiness is what makes life worth living. But your ability to enjoy life has a direct relationship with your health. Unhealthy people have difficult time finding that joy and happiness, as pain and medical issues can cause such pain and stress. Oftentimes, entertainment is a remedy, not a cure.”

With the Borderlands Science minigame, and hopefully with similar projects that it could inspire in the future, there is an opportunity to use the byproducts of the entertainment from games to support medical breakthroughs which could have real tangible benefits in people’s lives. Gearbox hopes that other game developers will take note and consider using their own resources for citizen science.

There are so many scientific fields that could make use of similar mechanics, from astrophysics projects to other areas of medicine. “I hope that it’s going to be profound and meaningful,” Pitchford said. “I think that a lot of our audience will love the game and use it, and a lot more people out there will notice that there is this opportunity for games and for gamification to create good in the world.”

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