online gamers are solving science’s biggest problems

online games
A new generation of online games don’t just provide entertainment – they help scientists solve puzzles involving genes, conservation and the universe
zoran popovic
 

For all their virtual accomplishments, gamers aren’t feted for their real-world usefulness. But that perception might be about to change, thanks to a new wave of games that let players with little or no scientific knowledge tackle some of science’s biggest problems. And gamers are already proving their worth.

In 2011, people playing Foldit, an online puzzle game about protein folding, resolved the structure of an enzyme that causes an Aids-like disease in monkeys. Researchers had been working on the problem for 13 years. The gamers solved it in three weeks.

A year later, people playing an astronomy game called Planet Hunters found a curious planet with four stars in its system, and to date, they’ve discovered 40 planets that could potentially support life, all of which had been previously missed by professional astronomers.

“Our brains are geared up to recognise patterns,” says Erinma Ochu, a neuroscientist and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow at the University of Manchester, explaining why scientists are turning to gamers for help, “and we do it better than computers. This is a new way of working for scientists, but as long as they learn how to trust games developers to do what they do best – make great games – then they can have thousands of people from all around the world working on their data.”

The potential is huge. As a planet we spend 3bn hours a week playing online games, and if even a fraction of that time can be harnessed for science, laboratories around the world would have access to some rather impressive cognitive machinery. The trick, though, is to make the games as playable and addictive as possible – the more plays a game gets, the larger the dataset generated and the more robust the findings.

Zoran Popovic is the director of the Centre for Game Science at the University of Washington and is the co-creator of Foldit. He explains that while successfully entertaining the masses, these games are meeting a very pressing need: science needs more people.

Through Foldit alone he estimates that the number of people working on protein folding around the world has increased by four times in the past two and a half years. Zooniverse, a website that offers a wide range of online citizen-science projects including Planet Hunters, estimates that, together, their volunteers give them a virtual office block of 600 people working around the clock on scientific questions.

If you want to join in and become a fully fledged citizen scientist, or if you just want to contribute to science on your way to work, here are 10 of the best games around. But be careful, because they’re all pretty addictive. But that shouldn’t be a surprise… they’ve been designed, by scientists, to be so.

Phylo

games-phylo

Make patterns and research diseases

It’s tough to know what to like more about Phylo, the colourful puzzles or the jazzy music. Either way, their combination makes the complicated world of bioinformatics, or more specifically multiple sequence alignment optimisation, incredibly accessible. By pushing around coloured blocks into patterns, you’re actually aligning DNA from different animal species, helping research into genetic diseases by identifying disease-associated or mutated genes. Beat algorithms and other players by aligning the patterns and minimising gaps as much as possible.

Foldit

A bewitchingly addictive puzzle game. Use shakes, tweaks, wiggles and rubber bands to twist and contort your protein into its most stable and thus highest-scoring shape. Each puzzle is a bit like a Rubik’s cube in that there is only one perfect solution to each structure, but there are various intermediate or less stable ones in between. Work your way up the high scores tables by joining groups and sharing puzzle solutions with other players. En route, you’ll help researchers discover more about the rules that govern the shape, and therefore function, of proteins, helping the fight against cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and HIV/Aids.

Forgotten Island

games forgotten
 Forgotten Island: ‘visually beautiful’.

Study organisms to assess man’s impact

If you loved Monkey Island, this game, a visually beautiful point-and-click adventure game with a compelling narrative, is for you. You’re a scientist with a secret past, trapped on a mysterious island where an explosion has destroyed the biology lab. Photographs of organisms are strewn across the island. Collect and answer questions about the photos to earn game money, which you spend on tools to help you progress and hopefully get off the island. Your classification of these real-life photos from around the world will help biologists to study the effects of urban sprawl on local ecosystems or to detect evidence of regional or global climactic shifts.

Fraxinus

Align patterns to save ash trees

Think Candy Crush but with coloured leaves. To play this Facebook game, align different patterns with a reference pattern: the better the alignment, the higher the score. Tussle for ownership of a given pattern by beating other players’ scores. In sorting the patterns to increasingly higher accuracy, you’ll actually be helping to detect genetic variants that can protect Europe’s ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior) from a deadly fungal disease. Each pattern represents actual DNA lengths from the trees and the fungus, from which scientists hope to identify genetic variants that either confer resistance or increase susceptibility.

EteRNA

Make shapes to understand genes

A similar concept to Foldit (it was made by some of the same people), but this time you’re trying to get RNA into a target shape. RNAs, which have an important role in building proteins and regulating genes, are made up of four different types of nucleotide bases. Switch these to alter the RNA’s configuration, increase its stability, and up your score. Target shapes get increasingly more complicated as you progress to becoming a puzzle architect or, in the lab mode, compete for the chance to have your own RNA designs synthesised and assessed by scientists at Stanford University.

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