Gaming for Science

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The choice between being productive or playing video games is a simple one for most people. Video games are mindless fun, and are generally harmless, though not really considered productive uses of anyone’s time. But, this dilemma between productivity and gaming might be completely unnecessary. More and more, scientists are finding ways of letting gamers, who are in search of a new experience, actively participate in groundbreaking science.

Back in 2008, scientists from the University of Washington released a game called fold.it, which can be found online at http://fold.it/portal/ . Fold.it allows players to play with the arrangement of the components of proteins, called amino acids, in order to figure out the lowest energy configuration, or the shape the protein most commonly is found in. Without fancy equipment or in-depth knowledge of biochemistry, players have made huge advances in real science.

In 2011, players predicted the structure of a protein from a virus closely related to HIV that had baffled scientists for more than 15 years. The game has also been used to take existing proteins called enzymes, which carry out functions on a molecular level, and make them more efficient. In 2012, players re-designed an enzyme that builds an important small molecule so that it was 18 times more efficient. Sadly, my years of playing Super Mario Brothers have yielded less dramatic results for science.

And video games don’t just help on the molecular level. They can be used to help fight cancer. In the UK, scientists have taken ridiculously large quantities of pictures of healthy and cancerous tissue. It’d take a huge amount of time for one person to have to sort through all that information, but luckily, if we divide that up amongst a large number of gamers, the task is a lot less intimidating. At Cell Slider (http://www.cellslider.net/ ), you can examine pictures of cells and help researchers determine what each picture actually tells us.

The only one I’ve tried is Eyewire (https://eyewire.org/ ). Just like Cell Slider, scientists need help doing analysis on pictures. Eyewire uses layers of images in order to try to figure out the 3D structure of nerves. It might not sound like much, but it’s just as addictive as any video game I’ve ever played. Scrolling through sheets of images, you get to see just how complex nerve structures are, all the while building up points (and helping science). It’s an international affair; while I played, the high scores were from someone in the U.S., Austria, and Finland. (My name is andyinchicago. Hopefully I’ll see you on there).

So when you’re looking for something to do tonight to unwind, think about maybe helping science. Turn on your computer, and start playing a video game.

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