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Scientific Gaming: An Unconventional Approach to Research

Diamond Yao By Diamond Yao Published on November 27, 2015

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“More than a passing fad, researchers say that blending human and computer strengths through games—gamification—may be the best way to process some otherwise daunting data sets, particularly those where innate human capabilities can fill the gaps left by imperfect algorithms.”

Scientific games allow regular people who don't necessarily have a scientific background to contribute to research through gameplay. These games can take many different forms, such as classifying data, building new structures or creating new algorithms. They take advantage of the fact that humans innately much better at problem solving and innovations than computers.This transforms the human tendency to play games from something basically pointless (being on a mission in an imaginary world) to more productive goals that will help advance science.

Their main advantage is that they are much more efficient at getting the job done than scientists or computer algorithms alone. A problem that leaves researchers puzzled for years can be solved by game players in a mere few weeks.

The benefits of these games also expands to players themselves. In fact, their main motivation for playing these games is a desire to contribute to the advancement of science and to do something altruistic. “Gamers aren't just trying to win games anymore. They have a bigger mission. They're on a mission to be a part of something epic.” By playing, they feel like they are making our world a better place in their own small way. Scientific gaming is also a golden opportunity to democratize science and to make it reach a large segment of the general population. This is why this approach is sometimes called “citizen science”.

Foldit was the first game to make a significant impact on biology. Launched in 2008, it continues to make new discoveries to this day. “[It] is a visual puzzle game. The player is presented with a primary protein sequence or partially folded structure, and then challenged to find its lowest-energy three-dimensional structure. Players interactively manipulate the protein structure by pulling, twisting and tugging the protein backbone and side chains into various conformations.” Its first significant breakthrough came in the form of solving the Mason-Pfizer virus retroviral protease. These have critical roles in viral maturation and proliferation. This problem had puzzled researchers for over a decade and every algorithm failed it. However, multiple solutions emerged when it was set up as a 3 weeks long competition to Foldit players. Teamwork and contributions from several different people played a key component in this success: “Foldit player spvincent (yellow) used partial threading with the Alignment Tool and quickly improved the starting NMR model (red) to have much better agreement with the crystal structure later determined (blue). Another teammate, grabhorn, was able to improve spvincent's model (magenta), particularly in the core of the protein, and another teammate, mimi, was able to generate an even more accurate model (green) by correctly tucking in the loop at the top left .” This illustrates how a relatively large community of gamers who possess human creativity (a trait missing in algorithms) can be much more efficient than more traditional methods. Since then, these gamers have also helped to redesign the model enzyme Diels-Alderase to enable additional interactions with substrates, among other things. More breakthroughs in the future are sure to follow.

Other games of the sort also exists: for example, there is Eyewire, a game whose goal is to map the neurons in the human brain. There is also Phylo, a game that asks players to align multiple sequences of DNA, an essential step in order to analyze it. Zoouniverse is a website where you can find multiple games that ask you to classify scientific data. As this unorthodox approach to research gains popularity, it is certain that we are going to see much more of them in the near future.

There is a lot of untapped potential in scientific gaming, given that there are currently hundreds of millions of game players in the world. It may well be the way of the future. Chris Lintott, an astronomer at the University of Oxford, puts it this way: “[Gamification] will become a standard way of dealing with large data sets”.


Kawrykow A, Roumanis G, Kam A, Kwak D, Leung C, Wu C, Zarour E, Phylo players, Sarmenta L, Blanchette M, et al. 2012. Phylo: A Citizen Science Approach for Improving Multiple Sequence Alignment. Citizen Science for Comparative Genomics. 7(3): 1-9.

Mark Schrope. 2013. Solving tough problems with games. PNAS. 110(18): 7104-7106.

Khatib F, DiMaio F, Foldit Contenders Group, Foldit Void Crushers Group, Cooper S, Kazmierczyk M, Gilski M, Krzywda S, Zabranska H, Pichova I, et al. 2011. Crystal structures of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players. Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. 18(10): 1175-1177.

Eiben C B, Siegel J B, Bale J B, Cooper S, Khatib F, Shen B W, Foldit Players, Stoddard B L, Popovic Z, Baker D. 2012. Increased Diels-Alderase activity through backbone remodeling guided by Foldit players. Nature Biotechnology. 30(2): 190-192.

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Cooper S, Khatib F, Treuille A, Barbero J, Lee J, Beenen M, Leaver-Fay A, Baker D, Popović Z, Foldit players. 2010. Predicting protein structures with a multiplayer online game. Nature. 466(7307): 1-7. 

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