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
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
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 Fold.it 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.
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