Power of play: Gamers solve 15-year scientific puzzle in 3 weeks

Making AIDS research into a game pays off big for scientists working toward a cure, which opens the door to using online games for other research.

Remember all that time we spent trying to convince our parents that all of those hours spent playing video games were not a total waste of time? “But Dad, I’m improving my hand-eye coordination!”

Well, this time we can say that we are ridding the world of disease.

In a specific case, government scientists had been trying for about 15 years now to model a particular enzyme on the molecular level that is crucial to figuring out how AIDS works. So they turned to computer game players to solve it, and they did — in three weeks.

If you are a molecular biologist, you will probably find this Nature.com article by an international team of researchers interesting. For those of us who aren’t (like the majority of us video gamers), the gist seems to be that this enzyme, the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus retroviral protease (aren’t you glad you asked?), plays a key role in the replication of monkey AIDS. Figuring out what the molecule looks like is a huge step toward stopping it from multiplying in humans.

At any rate, some of these scientists came up with a radical plan. They started a website called Fold.it that has software you can download with puzzles people could start solving. (By the way, thank you, Italy’s top-level domain country code, for providing the object of all of our domain verbs. Fold.it looks cooler than Foldit.com. It’s about as awesome as the country code for Libya (.ly), which turns every domain into an adverb.)

Fold.it, a multiplayer game that enlists players to solve protein-structure prediction problems, starts you off with a series of tutorial puzzles in which you are given simple structures to solve while learning how the game works. It does this without the player needing one shred of knowledge of molecular biology, or molecular anything, or even any kind of biology. You just have to know that if you move a squiggly bit one way you will get more points.

Of course, the more complicated structures take far more than a simple twist, and everything becomes interrelated, so a right move for one area might cause problems elsewhere. The most complex puzzles are really only for determined people with a lot of time on their hands. Fortunately, gamers fit that bill nicely.

And they solved this particular puzzle.

“The critical role of Foldit players…shows the power of online games to channel human intuition and three-dimensional pattern-matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems,” the research team writes. “Although much attention has recently been given to the potential of crowdsourcing and game playing, this is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem.”

They go on to cite the potential for using gamers in other types of research, writing that, “the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”
 
This has to be the coolest use of video gamers to solve serious problems since the Last Starfighter was recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Kodan Armada. 

But seriously, any resources that we can use to make the world a bit more disease-free should be used, and if that includes the video game player’s skill set and determination, then that is totally awesome.

Because I’m pretty sure that “improving hand-eye coordination” excuse wasn’t all that accurate, at least in my case.

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