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SMU Guildhall video game fights sex trafficking

Video game helps researchers fight sex trafficking

Nov 06, 2023

Article Copy — Read the full original article here

DALLAS ( — Calling all gamers.

One North Texas university is turning a video game into a crime-fighting tool. Southern Methodist University researchers are using a federal grant to create a sex trafficking data warehouse.

Researchers are taking information from law enforcement databases and combining it with data that video game players will help collect by playing "Dark Shadows." Gamers will solve fictitious crimes by sorting out traffickers' names and crime locations from real U.S. Department of Justice press releases.

The project is funded by a $1.187 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Justice. It includes a study about the relationship between economics and human trafficking.



"Being an economist, a lot of people are thinking about us working with data," Elizabeth Wheaton-Paramo, the economist and project lead. Paramo says they will use the federal grant to help transform a digital world into the future of fighting sex trafficking.

The I-Team got a sneak peek at the mainframe computer housing the data warehouse. Often dubbed the SMU ManeFrame by the SMU Mustangs, the room is highly secured with floor-to-ceiling temperature and sanitation controls. Everywhere you turn, you see lights, wires, digits, and servers.

Paramo says it will house crucial data to those investigating this heinous crime. She's been publishing papers on human trafficking for more than a decade. She says to attack the issue experts need to access data easily.

"Many datasets have been developed. The problem with that is that they're siloed in by individuals, by agencies, by organizations, and there's really no way to look across those datasets to come up with answers."

This new data warehouse should combine, layer, and centralize those existing law enforcement and court databases. Researchers say the goal is to give legislators and investigators a "one-stop shop" to search victims, traffickers, and emerging crime spots.

And what's so intriguing is they need the public's help to make this happen.

Video game is crime-fighting tool

"I knew we wanted to improve machine learning using gameplay," Stephanie Buongiorno, an SMU postdoctoral researcher, said. She invented the game Dark Shadows.

Looking at the monitor, she explained how it works. "This is the official reports and detective notes."

In the video game, you are an investigator solving a crime extracting and organizing clues.

In reality, you are digging through actual U.S. Department of Justice press releases which researchers have inputted into the game. They scrambled the details for privacy.

Gamers are sorting out real-life traffickers' names and crime locations.

By playing the game, gamers are not only extracting the data but also improving artificial intelligence (AI).

"I can also bring my own intuitive understanding to the data in a way that AI may not naturally arrive at, so says that Walter worked at a hotel downtown," Buongiorno pointed to a character on the screen. 

"Locals allegedly saw him enjoying cocktails and gambling," she explained, pulling out information from the "Detective's Notes" section. "So, I might be able to infer that one of Walter's hobbies is going to bar and I can add that and annotate Walter as a character."

While the game players are earning coins, researchers are earning data to be used in a very serious setting.

Saving investigators valuable time

Computer scientist and project lead Corey Clark said gamers will help investigators by doing a tedious job that—for now—takes them way too long.

"Right now, you have investigators, people…manually searching the internet looking at these releases, trying to pull information out, putting in their own database systems, their own reports," Clark said. "This will save detectives from having to manually read every federal document."

And that's where visualization expert Mateo Langston Smith comes in. 

If the warehouse is a building, he is the architect.

Smith takes the data from the game as well as all the law enforcement databases from all over the country, and he is building dashboards and graphics that policymakers and police officers will then use to link their cases to others.

He is also building graphs to help identify possible hotspots. He showed the I-Team how he has already identified Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington as areas of concern.

"From the data, we've seen an increased problem in our backyard," said Smith, looking at his graphs.

As sex trafficking grows locally and globally, these researchers say the crime-fighting tool being generated at SMU will remain under tight security. It will only be accessible to those with access, and it should be powerful enough to slow down this crime around the world.

"Everybody can actually have a better understanding of…what's being done and how to stop it," Clark said.

What's next?

SMU researchers tell the I-Team the data warehouse has been completed. SMU is now working on bringing new datasets to continue building it.

Researchers say some data is already available for viewing by police, policy makers, and researchers, but more data will be available by the beginning of 2024. 

When can you play the video game?

Researchers say the game will go through a beta testing phase within the next year where SMU will have a limited release to the public for testing and feedback.

The university says it will then make adjustments to set up a full access public release the following year.

For more information and/or to donate

The grant from the National Institute of Justice was a federal earmark grant. It is not a renewable grant. The University is currently seeking other federal funding.

An SMU spokesperson says, "There are many opportunities for entities and people who are interested in donating to building the SMU Human Trafficking Data Warehouse; bringing new datasets into the data warehouse, creating new data analysis tools for law enforcement, policy makers, and researchers; and completing human trafficking research."

For more information, people are welcome to contact the following:

  • Dr. Elizabeth Wheaton-Páramo, SMU economics research assistant professor and senior lecturer, 214-768-2836 or
  • Shivangi Perkins, SMU director of development for Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, 214-768-9202 or

Is privacy a concern?

Researchers say video gamers will not receive any information that would allow them to find a victim or human trafficker. The game scrambles the information it gives players, such as a first and last name.
They say the game does not give any player the ability to direct an investigation. These are closed cases which have been reported publicly in federal press releases.

Video games used in other research

Clark says the university has used video games in the past to enhance data-based research and to train AI.

He has specifically used it in eye disease research, particularly focusing on the retina, as well as in the discovery of cancer-fighting drugs.