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/ log / 20th Sep, 2011

Gamers solved a complex scientific puzzle

  1. Tue, 20th Sep 2011
  2. 0 Comment
  3. Foldit
  4. eteRNA
  5. Science
  6. Biochemistry
  7. Nature
  8. Publication
  9. AIDS
  10. Crowdsourcing
  11. Crowdgaming
  12. Collaboration
  13. Complex Problem
  14. Problem-solving

The application and development of games for educational purposes has become a more or less mainstreaming subject of research. But what about games to solve complex scientific problems? One of the first and most famous projects that make use of individual computing power is the SETI@home project to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. reCAPTCHA goes a step further and uses the unique ability of human beings to decode somehow blurred texts and digitize them this way. Simple games have already been created to enhance such processes instead of simply being an awful but necessary obstacle in the handling of web pages. Karido is a simple but quite engaging two-player game that helps to tag pictures and paintings with relevant keywords. But what about the really complex scientific scenarios?

I do only know two games trying to achieve that: Foldit and eteRNA. Both covering the field of biochemistry, that is the design of proteins, respectively RNAs. While I have some experience with eteRNA, the Foldit players made a major breakthrough on the way to an AIDS cure. Today a blog entry of John Rice drew my attention on this topic.

The problem the players solved, was to figure out the molecular structure of a retrovirus found in rhesus monkeys. It is a protein-cutting enzyme of an AIDS-like virus. And for more than a decade scientists have tried to solve this problem. The successful player team accomplished this within 10 days. This success was recently published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. And the solution now offers the opportunity to design retroviral drugs; Maybe a huge step forward in the development of AIDS drugs.

An article in the Cosmic Log is covering this story in detail. And it is quite interesting to read the explanations and comments of the involved participants and parties. Zoran Popovic, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science says there “Foldit shows that a game can turn novices into domain experts capable of producing first-class scientific discoveries.”

But I am wondering what domain he is talking about. How far the subject-specific expertise of the players is going is an interesting question. Firas Khatib, the leading author of the paper, says that human players have spatial reasoning skills that are not yet reached by computers. That is why they developed Foldit. How much more subject-specific knowledge does a player need to solve these puzzles? How much of the scientific background do they know and understand? Or is a profound puzzling experience enough?

I am wondering because when I played eteRNA, I noticed that you can get quite far with puzzling experience. Although I was gasping for background knowledge. Actually I quit playing the game because I could not gain enough knowledge to really understand my successful solutions; Or maybe I should say, I did not have enough time to develop a deep understanding and the game unfortunately does not care for this.

Concerning the solution process, the article in the Cosmic Log ends with a comment of one of the key players of the successful Foldit team. And it is a quite interesting story about this community of practice that is fostered by a ‘tool’ that simply offers the necessary infrastructure for communication and collaboration to make all this happen.

After this success I am curious about future developments. Maybe further research is undertaken to answer my questions about the learning ‘mechanics’ in this game. And probably these news will put the aspects of gaming and education further into the limelight.


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