Online Gamers as Scientists

If you thought that online gamers were just a load of geeks, incapable of socializing with the outside world, and living within the confines of their own in their bedrooms, you might like to have a look this website called Foldit. Foldit is a game, but its aim is to solve puzzles for science, and players have recently made some remarkable inroads into the world of protein modelling. Below is a model of an Amino Acid, and it is this type of thing that gamers manipulate.
An Amino Acid Protein MoleculeThis article that explains the process is in the online journal Nature, Structure and Molecular Biology, and begins with the following statement:

“Following the failure of a wide range of attempts to solve the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement, we challenged players of the protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the protein. Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination. The refined structure provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs.”

The fold it game has existed for a couple of years now. Players create protein structures, with the most stable and low energy structures scoring the most points.

The gamers in general are not scientists and they manually manipulate the model from a base form that is provided to them at the start of the operation. They have a variety of tools but the most important thing is that they have better spatial reasoning skills than computers. Computer models had tried to solve the problem cited above for 10 years without success, gamers produced an adequate model that was then refined by scientists in just 3 weeks.

We could draw similarities to citizen science, having seen posts on this blog discussing loaning out some of your computer’s spare hard disk space and memory to solve scientific problems, and the now common use of similar set ups in astronomy.

Just this week the Astronomy and Telescope journal is entitled Citizen Science, and addresses the issue of amateurs classifying high definition photos of far off galaxies. They say that it is the future of astronomic discovery. See my post on The Bassetti Foundation website for a lay explanation.

The gaming process is an interesting innovation though, as it uses skills that may not be particularly associated with science, but reveal themselves to be extremely important.

16 thoughts on “Online Gamers as Scientists

  1. I think this is a great idea- it’s been proven to help medical and scientific advances, but to have real impact there should be some kind of reward scheme… Maybe we could see research charities starting to come up with games or apps which could be given to people who do X many hours of data crunching with their machines?

    • Christopher (admin team)

      That is true, why not work out how to play, conqueror and discover scientific principles!

      Thanks for adding a comment Sam, welcome to the Technology Bloggers community 🙂
      Christopher – Admin Team

    • Christopher (admin team)

      There are many adverse side-effects of gaming too much, but there can be benefits of gaming – you could be helping science for a start!

      Thanks for the comment Pranesh, welcome to the blog 🙂
      Christopher – Admin Team

  2. Interesting attempt by Scientists to get the general public engaged; if it solves a problem even better. I have to say I found Science the most boring and dry of subjects at school, and I cannot imagine a puzzle game interesting me very much, but, if it works for some, then great!

    • Christopher Roberts

      I would agree Rich that getting people involved in science is a good thing. Would a more practical method not be better though, should we be encouraging computer usage?

      I am not disagreeing, just putting a different view to you 🙂

      Thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog!
      Christopher – Admin Team

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