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And the Nobel prize for video games goes to…

One of the most interesting practical applications of video game design I’ve come across is FoldIt, a project out of the University of Washington that has game players folding chains of proteins.  It’s actually a lot more awesome than it sounds.

Biochemistry is hard.  Protein molecules grow to extraordinary lengths, and can be folded into a dizzying variety of different shapes following a set of basic rules.  And a single protein can have completely different effects depending upon the way it’s folded.  Fold one protein this way and you have a normal part of the human body; fold it that way and you’ve got mad cow disease.  Unraveling the complicated effects of different protein shapes is an extremely important area of inquiry in modern biochemistry.

A rules-based problem with countless numbers of possible solutions?  On the surface it sounds like a job for SUPERCOMPUTER!  It’s not.  Computers certainly provide vital support through modeling complicated protein structures in real time, but it turns out that they’re not especially good at figuring out how to twist protein chains into new shapes that obey all of the rules.  I recently spoke with Seth Cooper, one of the developers of FoldIt, who told me that left on its own a computer “just kind of flails around, trying random moves to get the pieces to fit together.”  Since there are so many possible combinations to run through, this sort of brute force approach gets results very slowly.

On the other hand, human intuition can recognize patterns and anticipate strategies that are lost on machines.  But human beings come with their own set of problems — in particular, you need to give them a reason to do something.  As Luis Von Ahn pointed out, you can motivate people with material things like money or goods — but inexpensive and intangible things like recognition, praise, and social credit can often be just as effective.

And that’s why the designers of decided to make their human-guided protein folding interface into a video game.  Making progress gets you points, points get you onto leaderboards, and leaderboards give you recognition.  This simple formula has been sufficient to get tens of thousands of players to volunteer their time to a science which, in many cases, they have no background.  Though it must be pointed out that it’s at least conceivable that a by playing this game, you could actually win a Nobel prize.

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, 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

A screenshot from

People who play 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.