Games as production

In my presentation at the 2008 IA Summit, I discussed how many human activities can be understood as games, and benefit from adopting their characteristics. When we think of games as being specifically unproductive, we’re missing the opportunity to engage users at a level beyond what can be achieved in more conventional interfaces.

In fact games can serve as catalysts of production. Take fold.it, which is a puzzle game that challenges players to find the best ways to fold proteins. This is in fact among the most difficult problems in modern biology, as a protein can take on very different characteristics depending upon its shape. For example, mad cow disease is caused by proteins that already exist in the body, but which have been folded into irregular shapes that make them agents of the disease.

A screenshot from fold.it

A screenshot from fold.it

People who play fold.it are actually contributing to science, because the game uses the real physical properties of the proteins as its rules. Players are awarded points for things like reducing the size of the protein efficiently, or turning certain types of molecules so they all face inward. The New York Times notes that it’s plausible that by playing this game, you could actually win a Nobel prize (even if you know nothing of biochemistry).

The real pioneer in the productive use of games, though, is Luis Von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University. I’ll discuss his work in depth in an upcoming posting.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] you science geeks out there, here’s an article on using games to solve real-world problems which links to a protein-folding […]


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