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.”

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.

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.

Read the full Global News article

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