Foldit: how the gamer mind is aiding scientific research

This past weekend I was at a party talking with a friend of mine who happens to be a biochemist, I was telling him about my work in ludology, and how in my writing I explore the concepts of game studies that show the impact games can have on the world.  He mentioned a game called Foldit that had proven to be incredibly helpful to his research.

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Tutorial level illustrating the core mechanics of bending and moving protein’s amino acid formations to solve problems with their structure
In Foldit, players are given a puzzle to solve which is composed of a protein structure, the end goal is to fold the protein into a given shape.  The concept is deceptively simple, at face value it simply seems like a puzzle game, however, the reality of what the gamers are solving has far reaching implications.  As my friend went on to explain, proteins can fold in an enormous variety of shapes, and these shapes dictate how they can be applied both as drugs for medicine and as cures for diseases.

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More advanced protein structures
Primarily this type of research relies on algorithmically computed solutions to determine which folded protein structures best lend themselves to biochemical applications, however this requires an enormous amount of processing power. Thus, with the application of players and their minds to the problem solutions can be generated with greater creativity and variety in a shorter amount of time.

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Things get more complicated with the introduction of hydrogen bonds
The incredible statement the University of Washington has been able to make in their joint venture between their Center for Game Science, and Department of Biochemistry, is one of gaming’s power and the potential for gamers’ skill sets to be applied to productive endeavors.

What do you think about the application of gamer thinking to problem solving in the real world?  I welcome discussion on this topic and if you have experiences of your own you wish to share please do so in the comments below, or write in to playprofessor@gmail.com.

Andrew Mantilla is a ludologist and video game journalist for Play Professor.  You can check out more of his content on FacebookTwitterInstagramand Youtube.

 

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