Posted: 6/9/2015 | Print Friendly Version


Missouri Botanical Garden Project Releases Games to Improve Access to Digital Text
Two Online Games Allow Users to Transcribe Texts through Play 

(ST. LOUIS): The Missouri Botanical Garden and its partner organizations released two crowdsourcing games today in an effort to improve access to books and journals in the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). The games were created as part of  “Purposeful Gaming and BHL” an Institute of Library Services (IMLS) grant-funded project established in 2013 at the Garden with partners from Harvard University, Cornell University and The New York Botanical Garden.

The BHL is an international consortium of the leading natural history libraries and contains books and journals dating back to the 1400s. It is the single largest open-licensed source of biodiversity in the world, but like other digital libraries is hampered by poor output from Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software that makes it difficult for users to easily search texts. There is no OCR engine to accurately recognize most type settings and fonts from the 15th to mid-19th centuries.

“Purposeful Gaming” was developed to test whether online games were a successful tool for improving digital outputs by presenting users with words and phrases that are difficult for OCR software to recognize. The two recently launched games “Smorball” and “Beanstalk” are the products developed to test this question. Players are asked to type phrases and words from scanned pages in the BHL. After considerable verification, the words players type are sent to the libraries that store the corresponding pages to allow those pages to be searchable for scholars, educators and the public.

Smorball players are asked to type the words they see as quickly and accurately as possible to help coach their team, the Eugene Melonballers, to victory in the fictional sport of Smorball.  Each correctly typed word defeats an opposing player and brings the team closer to the championships.

Players of the more relaxed Beanstalk game must correctly type words order to grow their beanstalk from a tiny tendril to a massive cloudscraper. The beanstalk’s rate of growth is determined by the number of correctly typed words a player identifies. Players who accurately transcribe the most words will ascend to the top of the leaderboard as a result of their valuable contributions.

“The games provide a fun and engaging way for volunteers to help us with a task that we don’t have the capacity to do ourselves,” said Trish Rose-Sandler, principal investigator for the project who serves as data project coordinator in the Center for Biodiversity Informatics at the Missouri Botanical Garden. “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.”

Smorball and Beanstalk were created by Dartmouth College's Tiltfactor  an interdisciplinary studio that designs and studies games for social impact.

“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,” said 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.”


# # #


The Missouri Botanical Garden’s mission is “to discover and share knowledge about plants and their environment in order to preserve and enrich life.” Today, 156 years after opening, the Missouri Botanical Garden is a National Historic Landmark and a center for science, conservation, education and horticultural display. For general information, visit or call (314) 577‑5100 (toll-free, 1‑800‑642‑8842). Follow the Garden on Facebook and Twitter at and


About the Biodiversity Heritage Library
BHL is a consortium of major natural history, botanical and research libraries that seek to contribute to the global “biodiversity commons” by digitizing and aggregating the resources housed within each of the participating institutions, providing free and open access to the legacy literature that underpins the work of the natural science community. For more information, visit the Biodiversity Heritage Library website. Follow @BioDivLibrary on Twitter.

About Tiltfactor
Tiltfactor Laboratory, a design studio based at Dartmouth College, is dedicated to understanding how games can be used to generate new knowledge. Tiltfactor designs, studies, and launches games, across a variety of platforms, that use core psychological principles and strategies to promote learning and impact players’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Founded and led by Dr. Mary Flanagan, Tiltfactor uses its unique design methodology, Critical Play, to incorporate fundamental human values and psychological principles to promote pro-social values such as cooperation, perspective taking, empathy, and civic engagement. Follow the lab @tiltfactor on Twitter.

About IMLS
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums. Our mission is to inspire libraries and museums to advance innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement. Our grant making, policy development, and research help libraries and museums deliver valuable services that make it possible for communities and individuals to thrive. To learn more, visit and follow @US_IMLS on Twitter.