free debate

September 20, 2011

Using Gaming for Good

Video games have become one of the go-to activities to kill time and fight boredom in our digital age. They come in all flavors and varieties; some prefer first person shooters, while others (myself included) would rather play exploratory RPGs. There are concerns and research on the effects of those games, but that's a story for a different day. Instead, let's focus on the purpose of video games. Most are just games, with no purpose outside of entertainment. But a few help progress science, such as one that modeled an HIV enzyme in just three weeks, where the best computer models failed.

...[A] microscope gives only a flat image of what to the outsider looks like a plate of one-dimensional scrunched-up spaghetti. Pharmacologists, though, need a 3-D picture that "unfolds" the molecule and rotates it in order to reveal potential targets for drugs.

This is where Foldit comes in.

Developed in 2008 by the University of Washington, it is a fun-for-purpose video game in which gamers, divided into competing groups, compete to unfold chains of amino acids -- the building blocks of proteins -- using a set of online tools


Cracking the enzyme "provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs," says the study, referring to the lifeline medication against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

It is believed to be the first time that gamers have resolved a long-standing scientific problem.

This to be awesome, in my opinion. I've played with Fold.It a little bit, but not enough to really give a review of the game.  But the fact that it is being used to do this sort of research is fantastic, and I look forward to seeing what other discoveries can be made with it, as well as what applications those discoveries may have in the medical field.

Fold.It is not the only online game that helps science, either. Back in 2009, we wrote about the Green Pea galaxies discovered using Galaxy Zoo. Since then, Zooniverse has expanded to include 10 different projects, mostly astronomy-oriented (although there's a new one called Ancient Lives which is decoding ancient papyrus, if archaeology is more your thing).

To my knowledge, these are the only two sites of their kind around at this point. However, they're far from the only venues for citizen science; we have a larger list on our Participate in Science page. Also, if you know of any other online games for science of this sort, we'd love to hear about them!