Sorry for the delay in getting this posted. Two of us in the communications department spent the afternoon playing video games.
And our boss was cool with it. No, really, he was.
Chances are he wouldn’t be so nonchalant were we engrossed in, say, the next installment of Grand Theft Auto or Modern Warfare 3. No, these games serve a higher purpose: furthering research.
We came across them earlier in the week, thanks to a report on ScienceInsider. The blog post wondered when the National Institutes of Health was going to dip its toe into high-risk, high-reward research, with a prize attached to it.
According to the report, the America COMPETES Act allows NIH to do so; the story quotes a senior NIH official as saying that progress has been made, but patience is required. Further down, the story discusses how the non-scientific public can be used to further biomedical research; one example is the website PatientsLikeMe.com, which hosts a treasure trove of data on patients and could be useful for researchers to sift through.
Then came the video games.
Computer games like FoldIt and EteRNA allow non-scientists to participate in the discovery process. And that can be beneficial; one computer scientist notes that people with only a basic scientific background aren’t constrained by what they think the answer should be. Instead, their free-thinking solutions continue to delight scientists.
So, the Research!America team did just that: We unleashed two non-scientists onto the games to get their perspectives:
Background: FoldIt has been around for a few years (as the timestamp on this post from BoingBoing notes), and it asks users to fold and modify proteins in different ways. And in doing so, it helps researchers at the University of Washington gain a better understanding of protein folding, as well as finding microscopic improvements that could turn harmful proteins into beneficial ones. One important note: FoldIt is a downloadable application, so if you plan on using it at work, you might need permission to get it onto your hard drive.
Gameplay: As others in the links above have said, the game is strangely addicting. For a non-scientist, it takes time to become used to the concepts of hyrdophobics and clashes. Fortunately, there’s an extensive tutorial to make you aware of all of the tools at hand: design mode, shaking and wiggling (whose music is vaguely reminiscent of CSPAN2’s orchestral music during a Senate quorum call). But in all, it makes you feel powerful, in that you’re contributing to something larger than yourself and that you have complete creative freedom while doing so. There are no right answers, only a score and the challenge to beat others are on the high score board. And be prepared to be frustrated when you come within 10 points of advancing to the next tutorial or just missing out on the big board; with the click of a mouse, you can return to your most productive point, which certainly helps when a single stroke reduces your score from 8,500 to zero.
Background: EteRNA’s slogan is “Played by Humans, Scored by Nature.” Indeed, a weekly winner is chosen and that person’s results are synthesized. Like the folding proteins in FoldIt, the winner’s creation is scored based on how well the RNA folds. The game helps researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University better understand life at the cellular level and was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Ribonucleic acid, or RNA, molecules, by the way, play critical roles in the fundamental processes of life and disease – from protein synthesis and HIV replication to cellular control, according to EteRNA. However, the implications of this knowledge are not fully understood, and scientists still don’t fully grasp all of RNA’s roles.
That’s where EteRNA comes in.
Gameplay: Like FoldIt, EteRNA is rather addicting and required some getting used to for a non-scientist, communications type. Kindly, EteRNA offers tutorial puzzles — the first of three types of puzzles it possesses — for users to familiarize themselves with RNA design. Once you’ve cleared the five tutorials (or before, if you dare), you can move on to challenge puzzles, which allow you to hone your RNA folding skills. But don’t worry — if you get stuck, EteRNA helps you by offering a strategy guide. Once you get really good, EteRNA invites you to create your own puzzles with the goal of identifying problems with existing algorithms and working toward improving them.