Weird Games: When thousands of people put their heads together, real scientific progress can be made. Yuliya Geikhman explores what happens when research and gaming team up.
You’re presented with a mass of components that you have to fit together into a coherent shape. There are rules that you have to follow. Some parts like to be on the inside of the structure, some on the outside. Other parts can only connect in a certain way. The more closely you follow the rules, the higher your score is. Compete with others as you race to find the best way to fit everything together.
What I just described could be a puzzle game, but it could also be the procedure of finding complex protein structures. Though actually, it’s both. In 2008, Zoran Popović and David Salesin – two computer scientists – and David Baker – a biochemistry professor – put their heads together to tackle a big problem: protein folding.
Proteins all have a specific shape which tells scientists their purpose, but so far it has been extremely difficult to find out what this shape is. Computers lack the spatial reasoning necessary for the task, but humans would be perfect for the job.
What better way to present puzzle-solving than as a videogame? The trio came up with Foldit, a game that displays a 3D render of a jumbled up protein. Players must shape and form the Protein while following the rules of physics. Simple controls, challenging puzzles, and a fierce competition between players has made Foldit a huge hit.
And the stars of the game are not scientists or professors. In a spotlight by Wired, the top Foldit players mentioned were a 43-year-old marketing manager and a 13-year-old child. Last year, researchers at the University of Washington turned to Foldit to help them find the shape of a protein that can help battle AIDS. In just three weeks, reports the Huffington Post, Foldit players were able to untangle the protein shape that had baffled scientists for 15 years.
As the success of Foldit has shown, the power of so many determined people is incredible. Other fields of science have taken notice and begun to explore using videogames to gather human-generated data. All it takes is creating an interface that is ‘game-like’ and easy enough for people to play.
Of course, a good game is made even better by an incentive to win. How about being credited with discovering a planet? Planet Hunters, presented by Zooniverse, is a browser-based game that gives you access to NASA’s public Kepler data and tasks you with finding planets.
Sights on the stars
It may not seem like much of a game, but the interactive nature of the search compelled over 40,000 users to sign up just six months from its release in December 2010. By the end of last year, users had managed to find two potential planets. Players who discover planets don’t get to name them, but the game FAQ states that “if you are the first person to flag a particular transit as a potential exoplanet, and we can confirm that it is real, then we will offer to make you a co-author of the discovery paper.” That’s one hell of an incentive.
NASA itself is no stranger to making games. Tony Springer, NASA’s head of communications and education in Aeronautics, told GamaSutra: “Ever since it was formed, NASA has had an obligation, under the laws that created us, to inform the public to the greatest extent practical about what we do, and we’re always looking for new ways to do that and keep up with how people want to get their information.” NASA’s impressive list of video games includes Moon Base Alpha, Station Spacewalk, the most recent Sector 33 for iOS, and a number of others. The goal is to educate the public but also to get kids more excited about science, technology, and the world around them, and maybe even come work at NASA someday.
The scientific community has been turning more and more to videogames as a way of crowdsourcing scientific problems. Technology is improving exponentially, but we are also beginning to recognise the many shortcomings of a computer when compared to a live human brain. There are certain things that humans are simply better at, like certain kinds of problem solving and pattern recognition. Just relying on computers and a few scientists is not the most effective method of research.
Instead, science is looking to people like you and me to use our superior puzzle-solving skills to further the scientific world. Professor Layton would be proud.
Phylo is a game created by Jérôme Waldispühl and Mathieu Blanchette to explore how humans and computers can work together to optimise results. Phylo simplifies the complicated-sounding Multiple Sequence Alignment into colored shapes easy for players to understand and manipulate. The information created by Phylo players can then be used to help understand genetic-based diseases like those of the nervous or immune system. It can even help cancer research.
According to the McGill University, more than 350,000 solutions have helped improve the data for 521 genes since the game came out in 2010. “This confirms that difficult computational problems can be embedded in a casual game that can easily be played by people without any scientific training,” Waldispuhl stated in the McGill University report. “It’s a synergy of humans and machines that helps to solve one of the most fundamental biological problems.”
Which is exactly what these science games are aiming for. It’s a scenario where everyone wins: the scientific community gets thousands of volunteers to put their minds together to solve puzzling problems, while people who love puzzles and videogames get to play.
On top of that we get the satisfaction of knowing that what we’re doing can help advance science. As Phylo co-creator Blanchette says: “It’s guilt-free playing; now you can tell yourself it’s not just wasted time.”