MMORPGames at the knowledge frontier

I think we can use the social nature of the web in order to physically construct the knowledge boundary. (In 21st century “physical”  means into the web.)

Most interesting things happen at the boundary. Life on earth is concentrated at it’s surface, a thin boundary between the planet and the void. Most people live near a body of water. Researchers are citizens of the boundary between what is known and the unknown.  Contrary to the image of knowledge as the interior of a sphere, with an ever increasing interface (boundary) where active research is located, no, knowledge, old or new, is always on the boundary, evolving like life is, into deeply interconnected, fractal like niches.

All this for saying that we need an interesting boundary where we, researchers, can live, not impeded by physical or commercial constraints.  We need to build the knowledge boundary into the web, at least as much the real Earth was rebuilt into the google earth.

Game seems to be a way. Because game is both social and an instrument of exploration. We all love games, especially researchers. Despite the folklore describing nerds as socially inept, we were the first adopters of  Role Playing Games, later evolved into virtual worlds of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games.  Why not make the knowledge frontier into  one of these virtual worlds?

It looks doable, we almost have all we need. Keywords of research areas could be the countries, places. The physics of this world is ruled by forces with articles citation lists as force-carrying bosons.  Once the physics is done, we could populate this world and play a game of conquest and exploration. A massively multiplayer online game.  Peer-reviews of articles decide which units of places are wild and which ones are tamed. Claim your land (by peer-reviewing articles), it’s up for grabs.  Organize yourselves by interacting with others, delegating peer-reviews for better management of your kingdoms, collaborating for the exploration of new lands.

Instead of getting bonus points, as mathoverflow works, grab some piece of virtual land that you can see! Cultivate it, by linking your articles to it or by peer-reviewing other articles. See the boundaries of your small or big kingdom. Maybe you would like to trespass them, to go into a near place? You are welcome as a trader. You can establish trade with other near kingdoms by throwing bridges between the land, i.e. by writing interdisciplinary articles, with keywords of both lands. Others will follow (or not) and they will populate the new boundary land you created.

After some time, you may be living in complex, multiply-connected kingdom cities, because you are doing peer-reviewed research in an established, rich in knowledge field. On the fringes of such rich kingdoms a strange variety of creatures live. Some are crackpots, living in the wild territory, which grows wilder with the passage of time.  Others are explorers, living between your respectable realm and wild, but evolving into tamer territory.   From time to time some explorer (or some crackpot, sometimes is not easy to tell one from another) makes a break and suddenly a bright avenue connects two far kingdoms. By the tectonic plate movement of this world, ruled by citations, these kingdoms are now one near the other.  Claim new land! Trade new bridges! During this process some previously rich, lively, kingdoms might become derelict. Few people pass by, but there’s nothing lost: like happened in Rome, the marble of ancient temples was used later for building cathedrals.

If you are not a professional researcher, nevermind,  you may  visit this world and contribute. Or understand more, by seeing how complex, how alive research is, how everything is interwoven. Because an image speaks a thousand words, you can really walk around and make an idea of your own about the subject you are curious about.

Thinking more about peer-reviews, which are like property documents, as in real life some are good and some are disputable.  Some are like spells: “I feel that the article is not compelling enough …”. Some are frivolous nonsense: “I find it off-putting when an author  does not use quotation marks as I am used to”. Some are rock-solid: “there’s a gap in the proof” or “I have not been able to find the error in the proof, but here is a counter-example to the author’s theorem 1.2”.

So, how can it be done? We (for example by a common effort at github) could start from what is available, like keywords and citations freely available or easy to harvest, from tools like google scholar profiles, mathscinet, you name it.  The physics has to be written, the project could be initially hosted for almost nothing, we could ask for sponsors. We could join efforts with established international organisms which intend to pursue somehow similar projects. The more difficult part will be the tuning of interactions, so that the game starts to have more and more adopters.

After that, as I said, the knowledge frontier will be up for grabs. Many will love it and some will hate it.


Context: The richness of knowledge comes from this web of interactions between human minds, across time and space. This knowledge is not reserved to the statistically few people doing research. We grow with it, during school, we live within, no matter what we do as adults, we talk about and we are curious about it. Even more, immensely more after knowledge has been liberated by the web.

In a short lapse of time (at the scale of history) it has become obvious that research itself needs to be liberated from outdated habits. Imagine a researcher, before the web.  She was a dual creature: physically placed somewhere on the physical earth, living in some moment in time, but  mentally interconnected with other researchers all over the world, anytime in the history. However, the physical place of living impeded or helped the researcher to reach further in the knowledge world, depending on the availability of virtual connections: books, other physically near researchers, local traditions. We can’t even speculate about how many curious minds did not accessed the knowledge web, due to the physical place and moment in time where they lived, or due to society customs. How many women, for example?

But now we have the web, and we use it, as researchers. It is, in some sense, a physical structure which could support the virtual knowledge web. The www appeared in the research world, we are the first citizens of it.  The most surprising effect of the web was not to allow everybody to access the knowledge boundary. Instead, the most powerful effect was to enhance the access of everybody to everybody else. The web has become social. Much less the research world.

Due to old habits,  we loose the pace. We are still chained by physical demands. Being dual creatures, we have to support our physical living. For example, we are forced by outdated customs to accept the hiding behind paywalls of the results of our research.  The more younger we are, the more is the pressure to “sell” what we do, or to pervert the direction of our work in order to increase our chances of success in the physical world. In order to get access to physical means, like career advancements and grant money.

Old customs die hard. Some time ago a peasant’s child with a brilliant mind had to renounce learning because he needed to  help his family, his sister was seen as a burden, not even in principle considered for eventual higher education. Now young brilliant minds, bored or constrained by the local research overlord or local fashion, rather go doing something rewarding for their minds  outside academia, than slicing a tasteless salami into the atoms of publishable units, as their  masters (used to) advice them.

11 thoughts on “MMORPGames at the knowledge frontier”

  1. Thus, what looks to us like a sphere of scientific knowledge more accurately should be represented as the inside of a highly irregular and spiky object, like a pincushion or porcupine, with very sharp extensions in certain directions, and virtually no knowledge in immediately adjacent areas. If our intellectual gaze could shift slightly, it would alter each quill’s direction, and suddenly our entire reality would change.

    Herbert J. Bernstein, “Idols of Modern Science”

    1. Well said. But at the end of the day a mathematical reasoning which still contain arguments from authority is weak.
      Otherwise, concerning the post, it seems to me that it is less attractive than the previous one, on gamifying peer-review. I am surprised by that, because it looks like a valid path which deserves to be tried. and the purpose is greater, too. Rationally, there is a continuum between articles and comments, with peer-reviews in the middle. Even the notion of the article, as it is today, will evolve into something else. But probably the idea of a game, instead of a “serious” (but sometimes vain) activity, is repellant. I wonder …

  2. I wonder what Edward Tufte would do for visualizing this knowledge frontier. In this moment it is made of paper (real of electronic), partly chained behind paywalls, much of it free but too complex to easily see the interactions. I stress again the importance of seeing this world of research and that’s could be a solution for the problem of publication and peer-review in research.

  3. Our enemy is the natural “tower of Babel” or stove-piping that occurs upon a form of speciation of the implementation of a process. The system, as it evolves, diverges into different forms; if only to behave intelligently (see this ) Where intelligence is behavior of a system that tends to maximize the number of its potential future states.

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