Digital game helps tag College photo archives

| 5/24/11 10:00pm

Correction appended

Metadata Games, a set of two video games recently co-designed by digital humanities and film and media studies professor Mary Flanagan, will allow users to help staff members at Rauner Special Collections Library tag and archive thousands of photos when the software is released in summer 2011. The new open-source game will not only change how institutions archive data, but will allow people to utilize games as functional tools, Flanagan said.

Metadata's development team which consisted of students, professors, Rauner faculty members and workers at Tiltfactor Laboratory, the College's game research facility began working on the project a year and a half ago with a $50,000 start-up grant from the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities, Peter Carini, an archivist at Rauner and the content specialist for the game, said.

Carini said Flanagan came up with the idea as a way for non-archivists to help Rauner librarians catalogue more than 100,000 images that do not contain any descriptive "metadata," or data about data.

"This will change how we as archivists do our jobs," Carini said. "At the end of this experiment, we will have to look at the quality of the data, but I hope to use more of these games in the future."

Metadata Games is a suite of games including "Zen Tag," which can involve one or two players, and "Cattygory," which the developers tested for effectiveness.

"We focused on those two games because they were the simplest [and] provided a lot of input in a short amount of time," Flanagan said.

In the single-player version of Zen Tag, an image is shown to the player and he or she is prompted to describe the image. In the two-player version, players gain points by having their opponent correctly identify a picture based on their tags.

Players are rewarded for higher-matching accuracy and the number of their tags.

If a person has a self-reported expertise in a field, extra weight can be added to their image tags, Flanagan said. Graduate students who visited the Arctic, for example, added a level of expertise to the tags that they placed on pictures of the Arctic in the pilot test, Flanagan said. The pilot study assessing the game's effectiveness and accessibility involved 37 users and began in March 2010 and ended in May 2011, according to Flanagan.

"It was a great way for our system to compare how experts tag and normal users tag," Flanagan said.

Cattygory prompts players for specific information about a displayed image, such as the action in the picture, the colors displayed and the emotions evoked by the image.

"This game is less about what archive data a player would put in, but it is valuable data for a researcher [who] wants to find frightening or somber images and is looking for an idea or looking for a certain theme," Flanagan said.

Carini said trained archivists will check over tags to ensure their accuracy after lesser-experience individuals have tagged the photos through Metadata.

"The project was a real design challenge," Flanagan said. "We had a difficult time trying to determine whether the user was putting in valid data. We needed to come up with ways to verify information."

Flanagan said the design process was "iterative" and described how the design team created a prototype, tested it, changed it and then repeated the process many times before being completely satisfied with its product.

Alicia Driscoll '11, who tested the game in Summer 2010 and was involved in its "tweaking" as a Tiltfactor intern, said working with Metadata was an "interesting experience to see games applied in such a novel way." The games can be applied to a "tangible, real process," she said.

Other organizations around the world are working on similar projects, according to Carini. The National Library of Finland, the Library of Congress and Google Images have all done comparable experiments in archiving through crowd-source tagging, he said.

The Metadata Games project is unique, however, because Flanagan and the other developers are sharing their source code with other institutions to allow them to "adapt the code to their own needs."

"A researcher at Carnegie Mellon [University] developed the Google Image tagger, but Google owned all the source code, and an institution can't adopt it to their needs," she said.

Max Seidman '12, a Tiltfactor intern, said that the new generation of video games like Metadata are "socially responsible" and are being used "for social good."

"It's a valuable tool," he said. "It can be taken by any organization or institution that needs it."

Carini said he hopes similar games will be developed to allow users to tag not only images but also video, audio and text.

The original article incorrectly stated that Metadata Games creators originally tested seven games, when in fact only Zen Tag and Cattygory were assessed for effectiveness.

**The article also incorrectly named the two games and stated that Max Seidman '12 is a former Tiltfactor intern when in fact he is currently an intern.*