Gamifying Science

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We have this project called Foldit, which is learning about protein structures and basically engaging the players in, research level, structural biochemistry problems, to understand the shapes that proteins take. Up to this point, understanding the protein structures and the proteins shapes has taken place in laboratories with lots of specialized equipment, so there are some limitations with these kinds of methods because they can be very expensive and time consuming.

When you're trying to find a shape of a particular protein there's actually so many shapes that a protein can take, this is just an astronomical number but actually not possible to search through all of them fast enough even with computers but because it's all that the shapes of the proteins and how they put together and how they interact with each other and how they fold up and all the pieces of protein have to click together in just the right way for it to take the correct shape.

We thought that people might be able to help out and contribute to this because people have this special reasoning ability, puzzle solving, the ability to think about how the pieces put together and see those ways and actually quite a few cases we've found that the players are able to solve particularly classes of structural problems where there are parts of the protein that are out of place and the players can find those and actually fix them.

In some cases better than the computers can where the computers will actually get stuck because the computer can take a shape of a protein and make it better from that point, just go in the best direction that it can find from that particular point. But all we found is that people are actually able to make the structure a little bit worse before it gets better because they can see maybe a different solution that the computer wouldn't be able to find and they're actually able to persist with the idea and come out ahead of where the computer won't have ended up.

One of the interesting things about games is they present people with a goal and a set of rules and then it's up to players to try to figure out a way to reach the goal given the rules that you've given them and people can come up with all kinds of creative and interesting ways that, you never would have expected when you set up the rules and you set up the goals.