'Micro-Play' -- Getting the Crowd to Have Fun While It Earns You Money

This image provided by Ticketmaster shows the newly designed program for ticket purchases. Ticketmaster, often the subject of
This image provided by Ticketmaster shows the newly designed program for ticket purchases. Ticketmaster, often the subject of fan anger when tickets to popular concerts get sold out in seconds, is removing an annoyance that can slow down the buying process: the jumble of letters that people need to decipher known as “CAPTCHA.” The puzzles provided by Google Inc. are meant to deter automated systems known as “bots” from buying up mass numbers of tickets the instant they go on sale in order to resell them for a profit. (AP Photo/Ticketmaster)

In this blog, I interview Luis von Ahn, a brilliant entrepreneur and game-design strategist and continue my exploration of how online games can help the crowd sort through data in a fashion that is both Fun and Free.

When you log into certain websites, sometimes the site makes you copy a bunch of blurry, squiggly, "drunken" letters to prove you're a human instead of a bot. Did you know that when you're typing in those letters, you're actually helping to digitize old books and newspapers through a service called reCAPTCHA? In this interview I sat down with its creator, a visionary entrepreneur named Luis von Ahn. (For more details, check out von Ahn's 2008 Science Magazine article called "reCAPTCHA: Human-Based Character Recognition via Web Security Measures.")

I began the interview by getting Luis's background. A computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon, Luis was pondering how humans interact with computers, and what people could do better than computers. He remembers thinking, "There are a bunch of problems that computers cannot do: Why can't we just get people to solve them for us?" Back at the turn of the millennium, Luis said, "nobody had realized this power of the Internet. The word 'crowdsourcing' didn't exist." So Luis came up with this idea of a game to see for himself how he might tap into the power of the crowd through its game-playing.

One thing that humans still do better than computers is recognize images. In one of Luis's earlier games, originally called ESP Game, he gamified the process of labeling images. "The way the ESP Game worked was this: two random people were paired with each other and they got the same image on their screen and were told to type whatever the other guy was typing," he said. "People typed a lot of words related to the common image. I realized that if we could get two people to agree on the same word, that would be a really good signal it's a good tag for that image," he said. But there was a caveat: "Turns out that wasn't quite enough in it to make it fun," Luis said.

"The way to make it fun was by adding a timer." Both players, randomized from different parts of the globe, entered possible words until they had a match. The game then showed them the next image. They had two and a half minutes to label 15 images. "It turns out that the time component for this really made it a lot more fun," he said.

"In fact, that was the entire motivation: to enjoy oneself for a few minutes online." Luis's estimate was that over the course of four years, some 10 million people played the ESP Game and labeled some 100 million images.

Even though the game was later acquired by Google and operated under the name Google Image Labeler to improve image search, the game is no longer available for play. "There's a good reason for that," Luis said. "It lasted about five or six years as a popular game, and then it started losing popularity. That's the thing with games. You've got to keep on. Almost no game lasts."

This idea of doing two things at once -- playing and contributing to research or analysis -- eventually led to the creation of reCAPTCHA, "where we started getting people to do useful work while they're typing the CAPTCHA," Luis said. "We are getting people to digitize books while they're doing this," he said. The number is colossal: All told, about 200 million CAPTCHA squiggles are typed in a day. Why not tap into that?"

"The thing is, each time you type one of those you waste about 10 seconds of your time," Luis said. "If you multiply that by 200 million, you get back that humanity as a whole is wasting around 500,000 hours every day." The inspiration was this: Why not use the phrases from books to be digitized as CAPTCHA squiggles and have people do two things at once?

As the company's website explains, "reCAPTCHA improves the process of digitizing books by sending words that cannot be read by computers to the Web in the form of CAPTCHAs for humans to decipher. More specifically, each word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is placed on an image and used as a CAPTCHA."

I asked Luis to pick out three lessons he'd learned from creating his games. Here's what he selected:
  1. Online games for data-mining have a short virtual shelf life. People get bored, especially if the game seems stagnant.
  2. The games must be fun AND the data must be worthwhile. Luis created a game called Verbosity, "but the data I collected was not that useful," he admitted. "The idea was to collect what are common-sense facts, such as milk is white and water is wet. The idea is, if only computers had common sense they could be as smart as us. We were able to collect a lot of common-sense facts with this game. The problem is, the facts that we were collecting were just not very structured so we had a bunch of facts but we didn't take that a step further to make them useful to some sort of reasoning engine."
  3. Choose "Cooperation" or "Competition." "In your game design, you can either have your players competing or cooperating. That's kind of a big, big difference," Luis said. "For example in the ESP Game you were not competing with the other guy you were cooperating with them. You both got points together. That, I think, attracts a different type of player. You can experiment with both types to see whether to make the game cooperative or competitive."
With gamification, a company can actually do something that had not been doable, Luis said. "Sure we can do all kinds of things we weren't doing before [with computers], but I don't think we've covered 50 percent of what we need to cover. Anything having to do with language and visual recognition is very hard." And for the foreseeable future it will require both humans and computers -- and games.

In my next blog, I'm going to look at Duolingo, another company Luis co-created, and I'll explore his 10 steps a company can take to ensure the successful gamification of a project.

NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. Each step of the way, I'll ask for your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a message, sign up for my newsletter here.