Marvelous Mars: Gamification of Space Science.

Featured Image Credit: European Southern Observatory/M. Kornmesser on Flikr (CC BY 2.0).

A lion’s share of satellite imagery doesn’t find any meaningful application, simply because there aren’t enough researchers to make sense of it all. Here’s good news—about 1.2 billion gamers can help.

One current problem with satellite imagery is that there are too few people to process it all—the volume of the data we receive cannot be matched with an adequate number of specialists. There are more than 1000 operational satellites orbiting the Earth at this moment; more than 300 of them are carrying out Earth observation, and more than 260 are conducting continuous optical or radar imaging. Landsat 8, the American Earth observation satellite, alone has been taking 700 images of Earth per day starting from March 2013. There are not enough trained analysts on Earth to process all of the data collected, be it images of Earth, Mars, or other space objects. Meanwhile, satellite observations are key to providing up-to-date information about planetary surfaces; satellite imagery is also unparalleled when it comes to creating readable and reliable maps. However, for this to happen, someone needs to go through the images first.

In 2011, Hans van ‘t Woud, then a Master student at the University of Amsterdam, started thinking about this problem. He realized that, although researchers were unavailable, plenty of regular citizens were. Anyone with access to the Internet and a computer could help, if mapping (in this case, transforming satellite images into GIS data) was broken down into an understandable process to them. Van ‘t Woud, in fact, saw further than this—his idea was that processing the images could be both easy and fun. That is why he started designing what could be seen as a first serious computer game about space; at the core of the game was Mars.



In the first prototype version, users were asked to look at the photographs taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the spacecraft thanks to which we are now certain that there’s liquid water on this planet.  The photos were subdivided, inserted into the game and presented to the players. Specific features such as the exact locations where water could once have flown were stored in the database so the results could be validated. Users were mapping according to what they were shown and asked for. Each one was experiencing a virtual landing on Mars to conduct a mission, during which the player had to find and map dunes, sediments, water meanders and strange objects. There was a special set of characters too, each having their own personality and background; players could be experiencing their journey as any of those.

Cerberus character: John. Image © BlackShore/VanDort Studio

Arthur, one of the game characters. Image © BlackShore/VanDort Studio


“The crowd proved to be as good as experts, if not better. They were mapping faster and in a more thorough manner—they covered everything simply because there were so many of them.”  People invested time into Mars “exploration” not just because they had enough spare time online, but also—because, for once, the idea of a distant, seemingly boring planet was communicated to them in an immersive manner.

The medium was the message, and it made people see how beautiful Mars is. The way space sciences are being presented to us—mostly through textbooks and factsheets—doesn’t help advance the knowledge about this field. Gamification might be an answer. However, because the players are working with real photographic data: during their “missions” to Mars they get to know Mars as it is in reality.   Van ‘t Woud wanted to make others see this planet the way it truly is—with a versatile, complex surface structure, with sand dunes, canyons and river deltas. He speaks enthusiastically: “Did you know that the highest mountain in the solar system is on Mars? It is called Olympus Mons and it’s almost three times as tall as Mount Everest. Mars is not red, it has different colors. It’s like Earth, but desolate.”


When space meets the crowd

Getting the non-professionals to help with the real-life scientific tasks is often called “citizen science” or “crowd science”. This approach has been successfully adopted in space research. Van ‘t Woud admits that when he started working on Cerberus, a few crowdsourcing initiatives already existed, although none had any pronounced gaming or learning aspects to them.

For instance, in 2006, the team from the University of California-Berkeley enlisted the Internet users to analyze the interstellar dust particles in their project Stardust@home.  The volunteers had to go through nearly a million of stacks of images using the Virtual Microscope in their Internet browser. According to the creators, without the help of thousands of volunteers, finding the “first pristine interstellar dust particles ever brought to Earth” would have taken decades.

Center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Image: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center's Photo Stream/Flikr Commons

Center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Image: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center’s Photo Stream/Flikr Commons

Galaxy Zoo, another crowdsourced astronomy project launched in 2007, has been asking users to identify large galaxies. The initiative aimed to involve around 30,000 online users to categorize galaxies, in hopes to help verify “whether the existing models of the Universe are correct”. Co-founder Kevin Schawinski admitted to BBC that he himself found it mind-numbing having to classify 50,000 galaxies single-handedly in a course of one week. Not only did the crowd help immensely, but it also proved in many cases to be doing their job better than the researchers themselves.



These and other space-related crowdsourcing projects have one thing in common: they are our way of dealing with the shortage of available scientists and manpower on the ground. Too much space data and too few specialized people to make sense of it all—that is when the crowd steps in. Through contributing our otherwise idle time on the Internet, we can make a difference—for science, in general, as well as for our education.  What differentiates Cerberus is the amount of time and effort invested into equipping it with the attributes of a real computer game, such as engaging storylines, missions and characters. While previous attempts at involving regular people into space research were simply a call to perform simple tasks in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get manner, van ‘t Woud decided in favor of gamification. He says: “The thing with the Galaxy Zoo is that it’s not really a game, and you do not really learn from it.  It’s very simple. All you have to do is recognize shapes—do you see a spiral or an elliptic galaxy? It made me think—can I ask more from the crowd? We ended up making both a serious game and a crowd sourcing initiative. Plus, with the new versions of the game, we are helping to advance different social causes. Until now, you cannot find any similar combination anywhere else.”


From Mars to Earth

After entering the ESA Business Incubation Center in Noordwijk in 2012, van ‘t Woud decided to take crowd-powered mapping to a new level, and started designing new campaigns, this time looking at how mapping can help people on Earth. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency has been supporting Cerberus with conducting feasibility tests. With the new campaign, people get educated not only about Mars, but also—about the actual developments on Earth.

Gamers are mapping the devastated island of Talcoban, Philippines after the hurricane Haiyan. Image: © BlackShore/European Space Imaging.

Gamers are mapping the devastated island of Tacloban, Philippines after hurricane Haiyan. Image: © BlackShore/European Space Imaging.

“Now we are trying to help not only Science but also Nature and people in general. We are focusing specifically on campaigns for a good cause, although space remains a part of it too,” says van ‘t Woud. Since, 2012, various campaigns of the game have been addressing humanitarian crises and nature disasters, cases when quick access to up-to-date geo data is crucial. Now, by working their way through the satellite imagery, the crowd helps emergency agencies on Earth to respond to the crises as soon as possible. In 2014, for instance, the crowd was asked to map the part of Iraq where refugees were gathering to escape ISIS combatants, which helped to provide them with food supplies—and eventually, to rescue them. BlackShore, the company behind Cerberus, is currently busy with developing a new campaign to tackle deforestation issues in Africa. The creators of the game believe that their mapping technique can contribute to the realization of the United Nations’ REDD Programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).


Safety in Numbers

To attract any significant fleet of players, serious games have to incorporate strong storylines on top of their real-life lines of development. Van ‘t Woud: “We have two different types of mapping. There’s rapid mapping which is required in case of natural disasters and the like, and a more easy-going mapping. With rapid mapping, the game aspect is becoming less important, because people know that they need to offer help as fast as possible and that alone is often enough of a motivation. The less urgent the topic, the more central the artificial layers of narration become. The more boring the subject, the more developed the storyline gets. Missions and other elements of traditional gaming become important as well. ”

Gamers. Image: Patrick Brosset/Flikr

Gamers. Image: Patrick Brosset/Flikr Commons

The process of developing new campaigns would be going much faster, if the game received more financial support. Van ‘t Woud: “Despite the media attention and several European prizes, we are hardly generating any money. That’s the main reason as to why the development is going slow. ” According to him, there’s a fair amount of skepticism displayed towards crowdsourcing of this type; many wonder—can the crowd indeed by as good as experts? One of the tasks Cerberus has to check off its agenda is to demonstrate clearly that the crowd is in fact very good at mapping, and that it’s capable of delivering the results faster and cheaper than a handful of specialized researchers.




Creators expect to attract 100,000 players to processing satellite photos on the Cerberus platform. This number seems impressive only until related to the global gaming market as a whole. Spil Games estimated that already in 2013 more than 1.2 bln people (17% of world population) around the world were playing games.

Furthermore, PwC predicts the annual gaming industry revenue to reach $93.18 billion by 2019. Diverting even the smallest share of active players to games with an educational or social element might mean a tremendous contribution to society.

Van ‘t Woud comments:  “Take Candycrush for instance, which is all about adults moving around candies… To society this game is useless, but it’s revenue is something around $600 million. [ed. this is the total revenue from all games of, the Candy Crush owner, across all platforms in 2014; the developer also reported  142 million daily active users in June 2015]. If we could direct even a bit of that profit to the gaming for a good cause, it would be great.”

*To join the game of Cerberus go here




Marvelous Mars: Gamification of Space Science.


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