Gaming for Science

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I watched a TED talk some years ago, which extolled the virtues of gaming as more than a waste of time. She (I can’t remember the speaker or the title of the talk) explained that so many hours were spent gaming, around the world and how all that human processing of information could be harnessed. It seems, the science world listened, as scientists now actively use gamers to solve problems they’ve spent years trying to crack.

Foldit is the most famous example of gaming for science. This online puzzle game asks players to fold proteins so that they take up as little space as possible. Of course, it’s not as simple as that, because some aspects of the protein are hydrophobic or hydrophilic, then there are hydrogen bonds and well, yeah, science.

This video is a great intro to Foldit and how it works:

In 2011, Foldit gamers solved the structure puzzle of an enzyme connected with reproduction of the AIDS virus. The problem had stumped scientists for over a decade, but gamers solved it in three weeks.

Humans are basically experts at identifying patterns and gamers spend their leisure time perfecting this ability. This makes them pretty useful for researchers. Add to that the gamer’s ability to get sucked into repetitive puzzle-solving for hours at a time and you’re on to a winner. By bringing in game developers who understand how to exploit gamers for the benefit of science, researchers are making progress in a number of fields.

Phylo is a game designed to help researchers with multiple sequence alignment (MSA), which is used to identify functional elements of the genome and possible disease triggers. The trick is identifying key patterns across an ocean of data. Cleverly, Phylo turns the MSA problem into a simple puzzle that anyone can play.

Phylo - the DNA puzzle game
Phylo – the DNA puzzle game

The website tells us, “in Phylo, your goal is to move sequences of blocks horizontally in order to create the maximum number of columns of similar colors. Each color match gives you a bonus.” And according to the website over 372,000 problems have been solved so far. The game is also available on mobile devices, so you can play on the go.

If space is more your cup of tea, try Planet Hunters, a game that asks players to identify planets. The game is based on NASA data, which measures the brightness of a star. That brightness dips, when a planet passes in front of the star and the data is plotted on a graph, as a series of dots. The players have to recognise a pattern and they do so much more effectively than computers.

In January 2015, the researchers discovered eight new extra solar planets and two show Earth-like properties. So if you want to find another Earth, get on the game now.

Fraxinus is the Facebook game designed to help fight Ash die back. This is a Candy Crush style game, which saves trees – making your gaming addiction a veritable hippy crusade.

Back into space, Galaxy Zoo asks players to classify galaxies to help us understand the universe, no less. This is a simple classification task, which lets you  click on different characteristics, which you attribute to pictures of galaxies.

Probably the science research with the most traditional game elements comes from Citizen Sort, which feels like it’s aimed at a younger audience, but that’s no bad thing.  This research project from Syracuse University offers a trio of games, which all perform real science.

Forgotten Island by Citizen Sort
Forgotten Island by Citizen Sort

Happy Match is a sorting game, while Hunt & Gather is a classification game for natural history buffs. Forgotten Island offers players a mix of puzzles, all wrapped up in a mystery adventure, with some nice, painterly graphics too.

It’s always good to know that gamers aren’t the complete waste of space some people write us off as. Whilst many of these ‘games’ do feel a bit like work, to me, there’s obviously a great opportunity for scientists and developers to get together. Gamers are no strangers to the grind, so if you make it pretty and give us some magic coins or something, we’ll game for science all day long.

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