Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own. Science Sustainable solutions and innovation. Share to facebook Share to twitter Share to linkedin Nine-year-old Bowden George with the new species of ant spider he discovered from the family Zodariidae (top left). Bottom row: unidentified species sighted by QuestaGame players. Courtesy of Andrew Robinson When Andrew Robinson and his wife Mallika were driving one day, they heard their son and his friends chatting about video games in the back seat of the car.
“They were talking about these fantasy worlds and all these monster types and shields they needed to protect themselves,” Robinson says. It struck him and his wife that the names they were discussing were not common – they were unique and very complex.
"And we realized they had a whole taxonomy of these worlds in their heads.” That’s when the couple, with backgrounds in “collective intelligence design”, had the seed of an idea.
“Could we create a game in which you go out into the real world, and you're learning the names of all these exciting creatures which in many ways are far more fantastical than anything you can find in a computer game?”
At the same time, they mused, could such a game help scientists describe the estimated 70 percent of species that haven’t been identified before they go extinct?
The result of this brainwave was “ QuestaGame ”, a private tech start-up launched in 2014 with co-founder David Haynes after a small crowdfunding campaign. Based at Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, it now has players from more than 40 countries and runs competitions between schools and universities .
A free app, QuestaGame has captured the imaginations of children and adults alike. Players take photos of flora and fauna with the app on their phones. They earn points for sightings and the rarity of their location and season and gain special powers as they climb to higher levels.
As well as getting people out in nature, the initiative aims to educate them about taxonomy. Players are awarding virtual gold for accurately identifying species, which they can use to buy special equipment or join quests with other players.
A benefit of encouraging people to learn how to identify species, Robinson says, is inspiring them to care about biodiversity.
In recognition of biodiversity research, the Australian Academy of Science recently launched a new website, Taxonomy Australia.
Director Kevin Thiele says, “Imagine yourself in a world where we had no idea what species are out there and no names to communicate with.”
Such a world would thwart David Attenborough documentaries and hamper conservation efforts, he adds. “If the best we could say is, for instance, ‘it’s a pretty yellow creature with wings and legs,’ we wouldn’t get very far.”
Taxonomy Australia aims to help integrate citizen science into taxonomy research and streamline the process from discovery to description.
Thiele and Robinson are discussing how they can meld QuestaGame’s technology expertise to accelerate species identification with Taxonomy Australia’s ability to ensure scientific accuracy and relevance.
QuestaGame players can boost their own taxonomy skills by visiting the Bio-Expertise Engine and helping to identify sightings displayed there. Non-players also use this resource, says Robinson, like Bry the Fly Guy – a fly expert who inspects the site for new species – and spider expert Robert Whyte . Sightings by QuestaGame players are posted on the Bio-Expertise Engine for identification. From left to right, top to bottom: unidentified moth by Kim, New Zealand fur seal Arctocephalus forsteri by Surfap, Diplacodes haematodes by WestOzPathfinder, unidentified birds by cwpaine, Red percher dragonfly, Diplacodes bipunctate by The.lovebird, Wolf spider, Lycosidae, by Kimberly, unidentified fungi by Cherie, unidentified insect by Leishie, unidentified flowering plant, nadeesha. With permission from Andrew Robinson
New sightings are sent to a panel of experts – highly ranked players – for anonymous peer review to ensure players can’t cheat and species naming is accurate.
One of their top experts is nine-year-old Griffin Liddle from Brisbane, who plans to be a scientist when he grows up. “We have quite a few kids that have come up the leaderboard,” Robinson says, “and they’re doing really well.”
Another nine-year-old boy, Boyden George, discovered a new species unknown to scientists on a school excursion last year in Western Australia – a black spider with eleven red dots on its back from the ant spider family Zodariidae. The discovery won Boyden the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Student Science Award.
Even soon after the game’s inception, Robinson recalls a young person aged 11 who earned a massive 700 points for sighting a black-faced monarch ( Monarcha melanopsis ) near Canberra. The game’s founders thought this was odd. So they consulted experts, who all agreed the bird is not usually seen in that location.
“That was ...