The popularity of computer gaming is rising fast, but it's still commonly stereotyped as a hobby that produces little of value and and encourages an ugly competitive streak.
But to attendees of the Human Computation Workshop in Paris, France, last month those are positive, not negative, aspects of the technology; offering a way to solve some important technological problems.
Dreamed up by Luis von Ahn at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2004, human computation involves getting gamers to do work that as yet defies computers.
Von Ahn's first use of the concept was in a game that involves labelling images – providing a competitive forum for humans, and tutoring software in computer vision at the same time. A version of that game, called ESP, is now used by Google to improve image search results. This game that had players help biologists find new proteins is another example.
In Paris, researchers from Yahoo presented a similar "game with a purpose" designed to improve web search results. Players of Thumbs-Up (pdf format) are randomly matched with another player and each shown one search term and two web pages.
The two players have to agree, without communicating, which of the two pages is most relevant in order to gain points. Meanwhile their subjective responses help to improve the search engine in a way that a computer alone never could.
Seen to be good
These games make clever use of human psychology to achieve their end. It is players' desire to achieve higher scores that keeps them motivated through what some might consider a tedious task.
If you're not into casual gaming, though, you may have no desire to get involved. But there are other ways technology can be used to harness the natural competitiveness of humans.
For example, an iPhone application launched in support of Barack Obama in the run up to the presidential elections made a high score out of the number of calls a volunteer had made to build support during the campaign and let them compare it with a national average.
Similarly, the Tweet-a-Watt power meter that publishes your domestic energy use over the internet encourages people to compete to use the least power.
So much is competition built into human nature that we will even happily play games against ourselves. Indeed, research into driving habits suggests many people treat fuel efficiency in the same way as a computer game.
Car manufacturers are now trying to exploit that tendency with dashboard displays to nurture our competitive streak.
It's a design tactic worth using more often. After all, competitiveness may be one of the most renewable resources we have.
This article originally appeared on New Scientist.