Caltech Students Invent "Rankmaniac" Online Movie Game
They Built the Game To Win a Cyber Showdown
Whether you're a movie minutia savant or so clueless about the cinema that even timeless utterances like "She's my sister and my daughter!" leave you scratching your head, you'll want to take a peek at Rankmaniac 2010: the Game, an online movie trivia game dreamed up by a trio of Caltech students.
The game serves up a series of six paired "tags" for movies, and challenges you to figure out which film they describe. If you can't get anywhere with broad hints like "jaguar car"/"tetherball" and "beheading"/"zombie child," no worries. You can click-request another tag and then another, and maybe "first person camera"/ "corpse" will do the trick. Eventually, either you or the game will produce the answer—in this case, The Blair Witch Project. Then it's on to a new flick and a new set of clues, like "gross out comedy" paired with "gingerbread man."
The brainchild of Caltech undergraduates Dan Erenrich '11, Chris Kennelly '10, and Andy Matuschak '10, the Rankmaniac game grew out of a contest that originated in the Caltech computer science course "The Ideas Behind the Web," taught by Assistant Professor of Computer Science Adam Wierman. The competition pits Wierman's class against one taught by his former adviser at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Basically, the students are jockeying over which school can best exploit search-engine strategies to maneuver their "rankmaniac" brand into the top spot on Google and Google-wannabe, Microsoft's Bing. Wierman took part in similar contests while attending CMU, where he received both his BS and PhD before joining Caltech's faculty in 2007. This year, he's introduced the contest here.
Over the last five days, Rankmaniac 2010: the Game has clawed its way from fifth to third place on its prime target Google, with two personal CMU student pages proclaiming their owners to be rankmaniacs still in the top two positions. On Bing the CMU rankmaniac pages continue to hold pride of place.
Officially, or as Matuschak puts it, "for the purposes of grading," the Caltech-Carnegie cyber showdown ends March 4. Wierman and his Carnegie counterpart, Louis von Ahn, have a modest wager on the outcome. Truly modest—it's one dollar. Members of the Caltech community can give the home team—and Wierman's bank account—a boost by visiting the Caltech Rankmaniac 2010: the Game site, linking to it off their blogs and personal pages, and spreading the word about it through their personal social media networks.
They can also give a boost to rankmaniac pages sponsored by other Caltech teams by visiting the site Rankmaniac2010 (all one word), which includes links to several other Tech-based rankmaniac pages and more information about the contest, including a blog. Rankmaniac 2010: the Game is the only entry to tie its fortunes to the online equivalent of an arcade attraction.
"The Carnegie Mellon teams mostly took advantage of huge networks of friends" to dominate the search engines, says Andy, "so we took a different strategy, particularly since we started a lot later than they did. Instead of trying to leverage our own pages, we decided to draw visitors in by creating content, in this case a game."
They had actually come up with the idea some weeks earlier while trolling though IMDb, the Internet Movie Database, or as it likes to bill itself, "the biggest, best, most award-winning movie site on the planet." They were struck by the sheer volume of descriptive labels, or "tags," that IMDb's legions of fans affix to their favorite films.
"That got us thinking about developing a game based on the tags," says Matuschak. When the rankmaniac challenge came along, they went ahead and built it. The game is designed around the 200 most popular movies on IMDb and runs off an interface with the site's database that allows free access for educational and nonprofit purposes.
Since it went live roughly three weeks ago, the Rankmaniac game has attracted more than 42,000 individual visitors, who collectively have played close to 190,000 rounds of the game. "It looks like we've created something that is fun for people to play," says Matuschak. "Some of them spend a few minutes on the site, some are there for more than an hour, and then there's everything in between."
The game's creators say that the data from the Rankmaniac game is also offering some interesting insights into how visitors both to their site and to IMDb mentally classify movies, which may in turn shed some light on how people decide what films they'd like to see. They've found that despite their individual differences, films in related genres tend to elicit IMDb tags that emphasize what's similar about them rather than what's special—horror films, for example, are almost invariably characterized by words like blood and gore and gross—and that "even given an extensive set of tags, which they can expand into a larger set, people playing the Rankmaniac game will commonly confuse one movie with another, based on certain key words."
At the same time, some tags are almost universally recognized as unique to specific films. For instance, says Andy, once a "marionette" tag surfaced, almost everybody playing the game was able to identify the film in question as Being John Malkovich. (This may also have had something to with the conspicuous absence of Bride of Chucky from the IMDb's Top 200.)
"So once we have a sufficiently large data set, it could offer some new ways of looking at how people interpret and respond to films," says Andy. He thinks that this information could potentially be used to improve recommendation engines that online companies such as Netflix and Amazon currently employ to direct clients to films and books based on their previous choices.
The data might also point the game's creators in the direction of a new and genuinely lucrative contest. Last fall, Netflix awarded a million dollars to the winners of the first Netflix Prize, which challenged entrants to develop refinements that would demonstrably improve the accuracy of its recommendation algorithms by 10 percent. The winner was the self-styled BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos, a multinational, multidisciplinary team that spent three years devising their solution. Netflix recently announced plans to hold a second "big money contest with some new twists" and a time frame of no more than 18 months.
Is the Rankmaniac game team thinking of entering that competition as well? "We might take a look at it," says Andy. In the meantime, he's looking at a "signed, sealed" job with the Apple iPad/iPhone team in Silicon Valley after he graduates in June. As for his teammates, Chris Kennelly will also be graduating this June after just three years at Tech. Junior Dan Erenrich just won the $10,000 second prize in a campus-wide competition, sponsored by Caltech's Office of Technology Transfer and the invention company Intellectual Ventures, for his entry "Client-Side Video CAPTCHA Using Invertible Transforms." CAPTCHAs are those semidistorted images—most commonly letters—that many Web forms now ask users to copy to prove they're human. Erenrich's invention improves the system's security by adding animation to the wavy El Greco-like text.
Whatever the outcome of the contest, Caltech's contribution to the ranks of online movie trivia games won't fold after the competition closes. "The Rankmaniac game will continue to live on the Web," says Matuschak. Move over six degrees, Kevin Bacon.
UPDATE: When the contest ended, Rankmaniac 2010: the Game remained in the third place. The game's creators say they will continue to analyze the data as more users play the movie game.
Written by Heidi Aspaturian