Thursday, July 23, 2015

Purposeful Games and the Biodiversity Heritage Library


These are some quick thoughts on the games on the BHL site, part of the Purposeful Gaming and BHL Project. As mentioned on Twitter, I had a quick play of the Beanstalk game and got bored pretty quickly. I should stress that I'm not a gamer (although my family includes at least one very serious gamer, and a lot of casual players). Personally, if I'm going to spend a large amount of time with a computer I want to be creating something, so gaming seems like a big time sink. Hence, I may not be the best person to review the BHL games. Anyhow...

It seems to me that there are a couple of ways games like this might work:

  1. You want to complete the game so you can do something you really want to do. This is the essence of solving CAPTCHAs, I'll solve your stupid puzzle so that I can buy my tickets.
  2. The game itself is engaging, and what you are asked to do is a natural part of the game's world. When you swipe candy, bits of candy may explode, or fall down (this is a good thing, apparently), or when you pull back a slingshot and release the bird, you get to break stuff).

The BHL games are trying to get you to do one activity (type in the text shown in a fragment of a BHL book) and this means, say, a tree grows bigger. To me this feels like a huge disconnect (cf. point 2 above), there is no connection between what I'm doing and the outcome.

Worse, BHL is an amazing corpus of text and images, and this is almost entirely hidden from me. If I see a cool looking word, or some old typeface, there's no way for me to dig deeper (what text did that come from?, what does that phrase mean?). I get no sense of where the words come from, or whether I'm doing anything actually useful. For things like ReCAPTCHA (where you helped OCR books) this doesn't matter because I don't care about the books, I want my tickets. But for BHL I do care (and BHL should want at least some of the players to care as well).

So, remembering that I'm not a gamer, here are some quick ideas for games.

Find that species

One reason BHL is so useful is it contains original taxonomic descriptions. Sometimes the OCR is too poor for the name to extracted from the description. Imagine a game where the player has a list of species (with cute pictures) and is told to go find them in the text. Imagine that we have a pretty good idea where they are (from bibliographic data we could, for example, know the page the name should occur on), the player hunts for the word on the page, and when they find it and mark it. BHL then gets corrected text and confirmation that the name occurs on that page. Players could select taxa (e.g., birds, turtles, mosses) that they like.

Find lat/longs

BHL text is full of lat/long pairs, often the OCR is not quite good enough to extract them. Imagine that we can process BHL to find things that look like lat/long pairs. Imsgine that we can read enough of the text to get a sense of where in the world the text refers to. Now, have a game where we pick a spot on a map and find things related to that spot. Say we get presented with OCR text that may refer to that locality, we fix it, and the map starts get populated. A bit like Yelp and Four Square, we could imagine badges for the most articles found about a place.

Find the letter/font

There are lots of cool symbols and fonts in BHL, someone might be interested collecting these. Simple things might be diphthongs such as æ. Older BHL texts are full of these, often misinterpreted. Other examples are male and female symbols. Perhaps we could have a game where we try and guess what symbol the OCR text actually matches - in other words, show the OCR text first, player tries to guess actual symbol, then the image appears, and then player types in actual symbol. Goal is to get good at predicting OCR errors.

Games like this would really benefit if the player could see (say, on the side) the complete text. Imagine that you correct a word, then you see it comes from a gorgeous plate of a bird. Imagine you could then correct any of the there words on that page.

Word eaters

Imagine the layer is presented with a page with text and, a bit like Minecraft's monsters, things appear which start to "eat" the words. You need to check as many words as possible before the text is eaten. Perhaps structure things in such a way that checked words form a barrier to the word-eating creatures and buy you some time, or like Minecraft, fixing a bad OCR word blasts a radius free of the word eaters. As an option (again, like Minecraft) turn off the eaters and just correct the words at your leisure.


Based on the UK game show, present a set of random letters (as images), player makes longest word they can, then check against dictionary, this tells you what letters they think the images represent.

Falling words

Have page fragments fall from the top of the screen, and have a key word displayed (say, "sternum", or enable player to type a word in) then display images of words whose OCR text resembles this (in other words, have a bunch of OCR text indexed using methods that allow for errors). As the word images fall, the player taps on an image that matches the word and they are collected. Maybe add features such as a timeline to show when the word was used (i.e., the date of the BHL text), give the meaning of the word, lightly chide players who enter words like "f**k" (that'd be me), etc.


Like comedy, I imagine that designing games is really, really hard. But the best games I've seen create a world that the player is immersed in and which makes sense within the rules of that world. Regardless of whether these ideas are any good, my concern is that the BHL games seem completely divorced from context, and the game play bears no relation to outcomes in the game.