The Wonderment in Citizen Science


W in the my A to Z of Gamification takes us to one of my favourite words, wonder and its closely related cousin awe.

Wonderment         “The feeling aroused by something strange and surprising”
Awe                         “An overwhelming feeling of wonder or admiration”

Visuwords dictionary

But I think this excerpt from a talk by Jason Silva, self confessed “wonder junkie” relays it best.

My answer to Jason’s question, of how we might set the conditions to “become the uncompromising child voyagers that can retain a child’s eye view of what might be.” Is of course, games.

It turns out that many gamers feel the same way. Awe and Wonder consistently appear in surveys looking at the emotions that video games most strongly inspire and even appearing in the top 3 in one survey, which found for ‘wonderment’ only coming in behind ‘contentment’ and ‘amusement’.

Wonderment…41.5% said it enhanced their enjoyment and an additional 41.2% (for a total of 82.7%) said they sought out games that gave them this feeling.

In fact, of all the emotions studied in this survey, this was the highest scorer in terms of respondents actively seeking it out, as even the top 2 emotions did not clear 40% in seeking out the emotion. It seems amazing players is one of the most effective techniques videogames can muster.

We inherently know as children the value and joy of playing games and to me, so much of the trends and interest in gamification is perhaps the adult world’s grasping at the structures and solutions that might bring back that childlike wonder into our lives again.

Einstein Quote: Wonder and Awe, Art and ScienceThe Science Game

Scientific discovery is one of the greatest sources of wonderment and awe. So it’s not surprising that many of the most successful gamification solutions out there come from the world of citizen science.

However, in a 2013 Times article featuring Zooniverse, one of the leading web portals for citizen science projects, the director Chris Lintott stated he was nervous about making their projects more ‘gamified’, citing some disappointing results they’ve seen. He said:

“We’ve done some trials where we experimented with giving feedback in the form of points, and we found that while some of the people who weren’t very good did look to improve, others simply left.

[…] Also, there’s a danger of clumsy gamification. If I’m right, and people are doing this because they want an authentic experience of doing research, then making it a bit game-like could destroy that.”

I think, he’s both right and wrong here. Many games have no feedback in the form of points and the world of citizen science has more in common with sandbox and ‘loose goal’ games like Minecraft rather than a Tetris puzzle solver about maxing out your points.

Games are entirely capable of creating wonderment and awe, as seen in the gamer surveys conducted, even without the real-life context of possible breakthrough discoveries to play with. The real challenge with gamification in citizen science is therefore how to enhance and bring out these already seeded emotions.

To remind players of those awe-inspiring goals or subject matter, and to create the potential to see these with childlike eyes when we stare at a grainy picture and realise we’re looking at a galaxy.

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