Gaming’s Call to Citizen Scientists: Canaries in a Coalmine

By Jonathan Keane

The video that greets you on your first day on the job at The Moneitree Foundation makes very little sense.

A blurred image coalesces stubbornly, revealing a coal-eyed stranger who gazes directly into the camera and grins impishly, his shaved head reflecting a dull blue glow caught from somewhere in the cave-like interior in which he filmed.

As the transmission weaves in and out of static and feed interruptions, his booming monologue disintegrates into a jumble of fragments: something about birds being the key, a hotel with “eyes on the past,” a vague reference to imminent disaster, a resolute exhortation to “heed the call.” The last thing you witness before the message cuts to black is the man twisting suddenly to his left, possibly in anticipation of an intruder that you can’t see.

Does this video clip represent the meandering stream of a madman’s conscious, a desperate communiqué sent backwards in time by a fugitive in a post-apocalyptic future, or something else entirely?

It’s not often that a modern game draws people into its world with an introduction that almost gleefully eludes explication, but then, games don’t often track and adapt to what players do to flesh out their worlds, either. Teased via enigmatic ads on Facebook and Twitter and officially launched on August 8th, Canaries in a Coalmine is a free, Flash-based alternate reality game that is part of an initiative, funded by the National Science Foundation, to investigate how people learn while playing games in an online community setting. EdGE, the Educational Gaming Environments group at TERC, a Cambridge, MA-based non-profit that strives to advance math and science education, developed Canaries with a particular eye on creating a core gaming environment that is open-ended and malleable, taking shape according to ever-changing input from its users.

Gamers’ exhaustive and diverse approaches to playing EdGE’s first title, Martian Boneyards, encouraged its developers to ensure that the new game offers plenty of room to stretch.

“We set out to provide a minimal instructional design with Canaries,” explains Jodi Asbell-Clarke, director of EdGE. “Our philosophy is that players bring content to the game.”

Finding further precedent in an earlier alternate reality game called World Without Oil, Canaries stakes its conceptual territory on contemporary environmental concerns, asking players to explore connections between our planet’s health and the activity of bird populations.

The Moneitree Foundation, an agency that combines news organization and scientific think tank, provides an office that acts as the game’s hub, offering players daily challenges on a cork message board and instruments with which to probe both game world and the real world that inspired it.

Gamers will tap resources such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to build a base of avian awareness that they’ll bring to bear on some of the broader issues that Canaries presents. They earn points – and corresponding medals, taking a cue from similar achievement systems used on Xbox Live and Playstation Network – by identifying bird calls, uploading video content and weighing in on forums that speculate on such mysteries as the ramifications of that strange initial video dispatch. A simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down system, native to social networking, assists in generating a consensus that will in turn help drive the story forward.

By streamlining resources and facilitating a game atmosphere that fosters and rewards spirited inquiry, EdGE is encouraging players to embrace the role of citizen scientist.

“We don’t necessarily have the answers. We want gamers to unpack the underlying issues for themselves and to move away from relying on sound bites,” says Asbell-Clarke, noting that with Martian Boneyards, “they ended up seeing themselves as scientists.”

Adhering to one of gaming’s time-honored traditions, Canaries will feature an ending, but in keeping with the rest of the game’s determinism, the outcome will be highly dependent on where players take the game in advance. It’s a fitting touch, given the game’s concern over questions which the world at large is still very much trying to answer itself.

As for the prospects of that conclusion being a happy one, Asbell-Clarke sees good reason to be optimistic.

“Gamers never give up.”

Find the game at

Jonathan Keane is a Boston-based writer and musician. He may be reached at


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