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dot life Monday, 10 February, 2003, 09:49 GMT
Think tanks for gamers
The Thinker
No need to puzzle out problems alone

Online communities that band together to solve puzzles could provide clues to the next big step in social development.
It is not just many hands that make light work. Many minds do too.

New forms of collaboration on the net are giving rise to clever crowds able to solve challenges and puzzles that most individuals would struggle to tackle alone.

These novel forms of problem-solving are emerging because the net makes it easy for people to keep in constant touch, to bring together experts on wildly different subjects, and to access much of the world's knowledge.

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For many years, scientists have been tapping into the processing power of idle desktop computers to do number crunching on research projects that would otherwise require supercomputers.

Likewise, the combined thinking power of groups of people are now being tapped to tackle brain teasers.

One of the most prominent is the Collective Detective, whose members share an interest in online immersive games such as The Sims, and have a liking for intellectual puzzles.

The group has racked up considerable success in solving online and offline scavenger and treasure hunts, as well as more general puzzles with prizes on offer.

The collective launched in September 2002 and is open to anyone willing to pay a small fee.

Treasure hunt

One of the founders, Holly Samee, says the group allows people of all walks of life to form a formidable think tank.

TimeHunt 3D crossword
Many minds could make short work of such puzzles
The group's success has caused problems for the company Mind-Quest Entertainment, which was running an online scavenger hunt called TerraQuest due to last six months.

The first stage of the challenge, which had a $25,000 prize, was supposed to take people a month to solve. Collective Detective cracked it in three days.

Faced with this intellectual powerhouse, Mind-Quest has had to admit defeat and close the competition - and refund the registration fees paid by all its players.

"We are definitely having quite an impact on the world of gaming," Ms Samee says.

The power of collective thought has helped other members to win prizes. One won a BMW Z4 roadster after getting help to solve clues hidden in websites and short films the manufacturer had used to promote the car.

Serious fun

The Collective Detective website lists numerous "cases" its members are pursuing.

One, called Chasing the Wish, is due to launch in late 2003 and is designed to be an ongoing online game as well as a real world treasure hunt.

Artefacts and objects from the game will sometimes appear for real and players will be encouraged to track them down.

The Sims screenshot, Electronic Arts
Its members are fans of online games
But, says Ms Samee, the collective's detectives are not just interested in the loot they can win from such competitions. Instead, their interest is much more intellectual - not to mention the thrill of the chase and the stimulation it offers.

"Players want to be absorbed by the narrative, interaction, game flow and entertainment experience."

There is no doubt that game makers are increasingly going to have to take account of the massed ranks who try to get the most out of online games.

Already multiplayer games such as EverQuest struggle to cope with the groups that play and the creative communal tactics used to tackle each challenge.

Elsewhere online weblogs and chat rooms provide examples of creative, distributed intelligence in action.

Some technology prognosticators such as Howard Rheingold have predicted that such smart mobs, both co-ordinated and uncoordinated, are the future for society.

If that is the case, we could all end up winners.

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See also:

29 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
13 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
12 May 00 | Science/Nature
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