Game Drives Open-Source Biochemical Discoveries

May 9, 2008, 11:38 AM, Posted by Susan Promislo

On Day 1 of the Games for Health conference, Zoran Popovic of the University of Washington gave a demo of his Fold It! game project.  This unique effort, produced in partnership with Electronic Arts and others, is a massive multiplayer game that challenges thousands of players to work in competition and collaboratively to answer unknowns about the stucture and design of proteins.  I don't know a whole lot about proteins, beyond the fact that they play a big part in many diseases and also can contribute to cures, which is intriguing scientists like Zoran.  Ultimately, the answers uncovered through the game play contribute to the search for vaccines and cures related to HIV/AIDS, cancer, Alzheimers, etc.

file Here's a screen shot of Fold It!

What was especially interesting was the model Zoran and his team had developed --  in figuring out answers to individual challenges presented by the game, players share many partial solutions to bigger biochemical questions.  In this open-source game space, individual players each add their complements to solve the problem.  Some have strong biochemist backgrounds, while others just seem to have the skill to figure out the challenge and keep moving to new levels.  In designing the game, Zoran's team tried to pay as much attention to making it fun as to ensuring that it was scientifically valid and useful.

The top-scoring player, as measured by the best-possible folded protein, gets his or her approach tested in real-world labs.  Zoran's team is working on future games involving nanotech design and DNA computing.  As he noted, the next Nobel Prize winner might just be a gamer.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.