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Recently, the journal Nature published an article for which players of the online game Foldit solved the protein structure of a retrovirus similar to HIV. This particular protein structure, an understanding of which will help in the treatment of AIDS, eluded researchers for over ten years before they sought the help of Foldit players. The online gamers were able to model the structure in fewer than ten days.
This is not the first accomplishment by players of Foldit, who have also discovered a unique enzyme “backbone” configuration for the development of novel enzymes in what is likely the most detailed remodeling of a protein structure by humans working through a computer-based process. And, Foldit players’ overall problem solving methods have been shown to be more effective than known computational models.
Foldit, a collaborative online game created by the University of Washington, is just one of many “citizen science” projects in which the public is invited to help with projects too vast for researchers and advanced computers to tackle alone. Citizen scientists can help find planets, classify galaxies, decipher ancient texts, and build climate models.
This kind of collaborative gaming has potential as a resource for solving even greater scientific and social problems. In her TED Talk, game designer Jane McGonigal argues that collaborative online games will allow us to solve hunger, slow climate change, and, ironcially, reduce obesity. She explains that the gaming environment removes social and psychological barriers to problem solving and teamwork in ways that make the time spent playing games far more productive than that of ordinary work. Specifically, McGonigal argues that in the “game world” we are more motivated to confront obstacles, relentlessly working to overcome them rather than procrastinating or ignoring difficult problems. Further, gamers seem to find it much easier to participate with others toward a common goal than in real world settings, and they often feel a sense of meaning by accomplishing tasks that might seem mundane or unimportant in the physical world (see Tetris).
McGonigal explains that solving real-world problems through games is of particular importance because of the amount of time people are willing to devote to games not as a result of social or financial pressure, but as an exercise of unadulterated free will. That is, for fun. She points out that the average person in a country with a strong gaming culture spends a total of 10,000 hours playing video games by the time they reach the age of twenty-one, and that World of Warcraft gamers have collectively spent 5.93 million years online solving the “virtual problems” of that particular game world.
Another compelling reason games would provide an optimal medium for problem solving is because people do it for free. People face the complex and difficult challenges presented in a gaming environment for the fun of it. Foldit players participate with a free, nonexclusive license to use (and even modify) the software in order to solve molecular problems. In fact, the game’s license specifies that its use is limited to non-commercial purposes (without a separate license). However, the Foldit players who discovered the protein structure of the HIV-related retrovirus did get credit: they are named as co-authors in the published article.
Jane McGonigal envisions using the ubiquity of virtual interfaces as a means of intermingling real life with gaming life. One “alternate reality” game her company designed and piloted, World Without Oil, simulates a major oil or energy crisis brought on by sudden events. The interface replaces the real-world 24-hour news environment with its own news stories about shortages, riots, and crashing economies following a severe oil shortage. The object of the game is for the player to alter and track real-world energy usage as though the game scenario were real. Of the 1700 people who participated in the pilot, McGonigal says most of them have maintained the energy-usage habits they formed through their game play.
While this kind of game sounds very different from, and maybe less exciting than what the majority of gamers play on Xbox or PS3, it shows one attempt at harnessing the potential energy of our large deposits of untapped mental energy. The real challenge will be in game design. Creating a “game world” for solving major scientific and social problems that is as attractive to players as popular online games will probably take more than just devoted indy-game designers and university research departments. If the gaming industry sees a financial incentive to design these types of games, say, by having players collaborate to help design patentable solutions to real-world problems within a game, then perhaps there is a real possibility large numbers of people could engage in solving major societal problems as a pastime.
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