Smorball and Beanstalk Are Live!

The Purposeful Gaming project has now ended and BHL is no longer utilizing outputs from the games created as part of this project: Smorball and Beanstalk. However, both games will remain live for your continued enjoyment. Learn more.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is excited to announce the release of two new games by Tiltfactor that will improve access to BHL collections and open a new frontier for crowdsourcing and citizen science.

Smorball and Beanstalk were designed as part of the Purposeful Gaming Project, which explores how digital games can make scanned content more accessible and searchable for cultural institutions. Based at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri, “Purposeful Gaming” was established in 2013 through an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant and includes partners at Harvard University, Cornell University, and the New York Botanical Garden.

Purposeful Gaming: What It’s All About

Libraries and museums across the world have scanned millions of pages of books and journals in order to increase access and enable online discoverability. When digitized, these pages are merely image files, which are unsearchable and virtually unusable. Optical character recognition software (OCR) is a method for converting page images to machine encoded text so they can be searched. Unfortunately, historic literature, like that found in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, has proven to be particularly problematic for OCR because of its tendency to have varying fonts, typesetting, and layouts that make it difficult to accurately render.

This is where the games come in.

Smorball and Beanstalk, both quick and easy browser games, present players with phrases from scanned pages in BHL. After much verification, the words players type are sent to the libraries that store the corresponding pages, allowing those pages to be searched and data mined and ultimately making historic literature more usable for institutions, scholars, educators, and the public.

Why Use Games?

While transcription tasks of the sort usually crowdsourced to the public can be interesting and engaging, they are often time-consuming and exacting. Games provide a fun, interactive, piecemeal method of accomplishing those same tasks.

“Cultural heritage institutions are increasingly benefiting from human computation approaches that have been used in revolutionary ways by scientific researchers. Engaging citizens to work together as decoders of our heritage is a natural progression, as preserving these records directly benefits the public,” says Dr. Mary Flanagan, founder and director of Tiltfactor. “Integrating the task of transcription with the engagement of computer games gives an extra layer of incentive to motivate the public to contribute.”

Why This Approach Is Groundbreaking

While many institutions have harnessed the power of crowdsourcing, “Purposeful Gaming” represents a new avenue of collaboration that promises wider appeal and endless possibilities for engaging citizen scientists in new, creative ways.

“The games provide a fun and engaging way for volunteers to help us with a task that we don’t have the staff to do ourselves,” explains Trish Rose-Sandler, Principal Investigator for “Purposeful Gaming.” “BHL benefits by having improved discoverability of its books and journals on plant and animal life. More importantly, benefits from the results of the project would extend to the broader digital library community. Any institution managing large text collections can learn from novel and more cost-effective approaches to generating searchable texts.”

What’s the Difference between the Two Games? Where Can I Play them?

Players of the more challenging Smorball game are asked to type the words they see as quickly and accurately as possible to help coach their team, the Eugene Melonballers, to victory to win the coveted Dalahäst Trophy in the fictional sport of Smorball.  Each word typed correctly defeats an opposing smorbot and brings the Melonballers closer to the championships.

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Players of the more relaxed Beanstalk game must type the words presented to them correctly in order to grow their beanstalk from a tiny tendril to a massive cloudscraper. The more words they type correctly, the faster the beanstalk grows. Players who accurately transcribe the most words will ascend to the top of the leaderboard as a result of their valuable contributions.

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If you want to learn about the material that was used for the Purposeful Gaming Project, check out the writings of William Brewster and BHL’s Seed and Nursery Catalog Collection.

Now, in the name of science, go play Smorball and Beanstalk. And have fun!

Avatar for Patrick Randall
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Patrick Randall served as the Community Manager for the BHL Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature project at the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University from 2015-2017.