Gamers, we have a solution for anyone who nags you about the hours you spend glued to your computer or TV screen. Just tell them, “It’s for science!” Okay, maybe that tactic is far-fetched for World of Warcraft or Call of Duty, but if you are playing Foldit, an online game where players compete to build protein structures, you might be legitimately contributing to science.

In September, Foldit players solved the structure of a protein with a critical role in AIDS research. Scientists baffled by the protein challenged Foldit players to find a solution, which they did – in three weeks. “People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,” explained Seth Cooper, a co-creator of Foldit and its lead designer and developer. “Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans.” 

Those combined strengths could be responsible for scientific advances beyond protein structure, but for now, Foldit is staying on course with proteins. The game, developed by the University of Washington’s Center for Gaming Sciences, is made up of protein structure puzzles. Players can rotate the 3-D protein and manipulate the proteins with various tools to solve the puzzle. Solutions are known as “recipes” and each player has a “cookbook” to keep them in. 

A recent study by the University of Washington modified Foldit so players could create, edit, share, and rate other players’ recipes. The three-month studied found players were open and willing to share recipes and collaborate to build refined recipes. Surprisingly, one of the recipes built during the study bared a striking resemblance to an unpublished algorithm developed by a scientist, which highlights the game’s potential for problem solving complex scientific problems. The researchers also discovered other state-of-the-art algorithms within players’ cookbooks. Based on these findings, the team behind Foldit is increasing the game’s scripting tools in a bid to see to what level social gaming can take scientific problem solving.

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