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The Ethics of Citizen Science Gaming: Perspectives from STS

Fri, September 1, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Sheraton Boston, Floor: 3, Beacon H


“Citizen science” games (such as Foldit, EteRNA, Eyewire, and Stall Catchers) have been increasingly producing new scientific knowledge. Similar to crowdsourcing, these games rely on the participation of many people—often “amateurs” or nonscientists—to help solve large-scale scientific problems by contributing and analyzing data through a game. For instance, in the game, Play to Cure: Genes in Space, players ostensibly fly through space collecting “Element Alpha,” a type of “fuel” so they can reach their destination. However, this “fuel” actually represents data points on breast cancer data. Using Play to Cure, Cancer Research UK was able to analyze this data much faster than any research team would have been able to do, adding to our knowledge of cancer.
Thus far, little thought has been made to the ethical and social implications of these games, possibly because their goals are societally beneficial (e.g., cure cancer, halt Alzheimer’s disease), and due to mythologies surrounding the socio-politics of science. The purpose of this paper is to deliberate the ethical implications of citizen science games, particularly in how ethical principles are designed (or not designed) in the game, such as in the management of privacy and data-related interactions (boyd & Crawford; Poovey; Andrejevic), and in the relationship among players (amateurs), scientists, and labor (Postigo; Terranova; Fuchs; Latour). What frameworks and approaches from STS can help to analyze the ethical dimensions of the game design, gameplay, and “machinery” (Knorr-Cetina) behind this type of knowledge creation? Our driving questions are: how are ethics and ethical questions communicated through the game’s play, instructions, and discourse around the game (website, forums, invitations, calls-to-action)? What is the role of scientists, game designers, and players in expressing and validating how ethics are considered in the game’s design and deployment? How can ethics be designed into the game and the “meta-game,” as well as in how knowledge is used and communicated publicly?


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