Borderlands mini-game will help map the human gut microbiome


Today, Borderlands 3 gets a new interactive mini-game, Borderlands Science. But this is not only another way of getting away from time between missions: it will also directly contribute to research in biomedicine.

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

Digital Trends spoke to Randy Pitchford, CEO of Borderlands 3 Gearbox developers and Attila Szantner, co-founder of the Massively Multiplayer Online Science project, which links scientists and game developers, on what players can earn by playing Borderlands Science – and what they can give back to the world as they do.

A foreign body

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

Although we normally consider organisms like bacteria and viruses to be harmful to our health, only part of the wide variety of microorganisms that we harbor is harmful. There are so many microbes in our systems that they are even more numerous than our body’s own cells, which has led some experts to argue that we are best described not as purely human but as a co-dependent host. these microbes.

Programming language allows bacteria to genetically heal cells
Sergey Volkov /

The microbiome has been identified to play an important role in all kinds 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.

Find similar microbes

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

Borderlands science

Although computers are extremely good at certain classification tasks, they are not as good at recognizing “close enough” matches. Humans, on the other hand, are very good at making quick, rough estimates of similarity that produce nearly optimal results.

The classification of microbes is somewhat ambiguous and requires judgment.

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

Turning the task into a mini-game makes it much more attractive and integrating this mini-game into an already popular game like Borderlands 3 means more people will access it and more people will play, generating more research data, said Szantner.

How? ‘Or’ What Borderlands science works

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

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

“It’s basically an arcade game,” said Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox. “The solution has therefore become obvious. Designers and artists have had this idea of: What if on board the hero’s base, someone brings an arcade piece of furniture? And it’s part of fiction. You’re playing a game inside a game. So it has its own rules, its own rewards, and its own score. “

Some of the rewards offered for playing Borderlands science may temporarily postpone and assist 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 mini-game.

Borderlands science

The mini-game is not presented as a citizen science supplement to the main game. Rather, it is integrated into the world; some players may not even realize they are working to advance science.

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

Pitchford compared the mini-game to familiar titles like Tetris and Dr. Mario, which also involve matching colors and shapes. This familiarity is due to the design, because the format is ideally suited to the microbiome’s data set and the way it should be analyzed.

An almost unlimited human computing engine

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

Or there are distributed IT projects like Folding @ Home that use additional computer processing power when machines are not used to calculate scientific project figures.

But Borderlands science is different. Scientists are teaming up with an established fan base of enthusiastic gamers to try new things.

“We can tap into this incredible resource of millions of players who want to interact with this feature in the game,” said Attila Szantner. “The big difference between distributed IT projects and this one is that in distributed IT projects, you integrate your IT resources, but in this project, you integrate your cognitive skills.”

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

“Normally, our mission is to just create entertainment, and the only goal we have is to make our audience feel satisfied with the experience,” he said. “We want the public to feel that the game is a good use of its time. In this case, we have another goal, which is that the data from the gaming experience should actually be useful for the goals of the medical community. We had to create useful data to solve this classification problem. “

And as for the potential of such long-term projects, “I truly believe it can be an almost limitless human computing engine,” said Szantner. “Having millions of players contributing to scientific research is a very powerful configuration. “

The game at the frontier of citizen science

Although research on games and medicine may seem to be very distant concepts, Pitchford said he considered the two to be related: “I think entertainment is one of the most important things.” more precious that we have as a species. The fact that we can experience joy and happiness is what makes life worth living. But your ability to enjoy life has a direct relationship to your health. Unhealthy people find it difficult to find joy and happiness because pain and medical problems can cause such pain and stress. Often, entertainment is a cure, not a cure. “

With the Borderlands science mini-game and hopefully with similar projects he could inspire in the future it is possible to use gaming entertainment byproducts to support medical breakthroughs that could have real tangible benefits in people’s life. Gearbox hopes that other game developers will take note and consider using their own resources for citizen science.

There are so many areas of science that could use similar mechanisms, from astrophysics projects to other areas of medicine. “I hope this is going to be deep and meaningful,” said Pitchford. “I think many of our audiences will love and use the game, and many more people will notice that there is this opportunity for games and gamification to create good in the world. “

Publisher recommendations


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here