Future Tense

Level-Up Your Humanity by Joining the Internet Response League

The players of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) are widely mocked in popular culture, but such depictions have done little to dissuade users. The World of Warcraft camp alone is 9.6 million subscribers strong—which means there are more citizens in this one online world than people living in Sweden. Just imagine if this scattered army of hunters, shamans, druids, and death knights learned to unite under a single banner. What deeds might it accomplish? How many lives might it save? And what might it do for the reputation of gamers everywhere if such games, you know, actually contributed something to the world? 

That’s exactly what the minds behind the Internet Response League want to find out. Though it’s still in preliminary phases, the IRL—which gets bonus points for its clever acronym—aims to build a plugin that enlists online gamers to sort through social media images to identify levels of damage. This information will then be used to build maps that might assist first responders by revealing the areas that are hardest hit or currently reaching crisis. Additionally, such maps might be useful for victims, too, as they could identify areas to avoid or the location of resources such as medical aid and clean water.

“The problem is that during the disaster you’ll have a ridiculous amount of social media and maybe just a small percentage of it that’s relevant,” says Peter Mosur, IRL co-creator and a graduate student working in emergency communications at the Metropolitan College of New York. (Mosur’s game of choice right now is League of Legends, in case you were wondering.)

For instance, half a million Instagram photos and 20 million tweets went up over the course of Hurricane Sandy. Most of them were probably about wet pant legs, but some probably contained useful data—if only there were some way to sift through and find it. And that’s where the army of blood elves comes in.

According to Mosur, the goal is to keep these crowd-sourced hero missions in-game, since this is where users are comfortable and most likely to participate. (Arguably, some gamers are little too comfortable in their fictional worlds. One psychiatrist has even proposed providing addiction therapy by going into the game after them.) Ideally, the search effort would be tailored to match each individual game’s style and setup, with the additional possibility of offering incentives for meeting quotas, such as gear, gold, and character level-ups. Mosur told me another way to spice things up might be to pit communities against one another—as in Xbox Live vs. PlayStation Network vs. Steam

And while spending your gaming time pouring over someone else’s Instagram account may strike some as a tedious task, I’d argue it’s not all that different from a lifetime spent farming the same dungeon and raid content looking for that one elusive drop. Except at the end of a marathon session of IRL’s plugin campaign, you might just have helped save an honest-to-mod human life.

While there are still many kinks to work out—like how to factor in trolls just looking to make some quick gold or generally mess things up—the IRL has already talked to a number of indie game developers and is currently trying to get the attention of MMORPG big guns like World of Warcraft and League of Legends. But in the end, the opinions of the users will likely matter just as much as the willingness of game developers to allow such a plugin.

So, would you join the Internet Response League and sacrifice a few hours of looting for the fate of your fellow man? Or is your debt to mankind paid after convincing your guild to accept that newb brother-in-law of yours who likes to stand in fire?

Hat-tip to IEEE Spectrum