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.

Collins Kilgore

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4 Responses to Gaming for the Greater Good

  1. Collins Kilgore says:

    I would imagine game distributors might treat gamers the way patent-producing companies relate to their employees. Workers at tech companies give up rights to their inventions, assigning them to their employers. In a similar fashion, companies marketing games that may lead to patentable inventions could enforce similar restrictions on the players. In order to participate in the game, players would agree to a software license giving up their patent rights in exchange for some benefit. The companies will want that benefit to be as close as possible to being “the privilege of enjoying the game” or some sort of public credit for their work, like the Foldit players got. But Katie is right, a lot of gamers wouldn’t be satisfied if they knew they were producing profit for a company without some just reward. This is especially true considering that some players will be more skilled at the game of “solving problems” or “inventing” than others.

    One solution would be a royalty-sharing agreement. There are some streaming-music services (mflow is one) that reward users for recommending music to others by giving them discounts on purchases based on the amount of other users following their recommendations.

    In the patent-producing video game scenario, the scheme would have to be a little different, unless the companies can come up with some in-game incentive that players would find desirable enough to forgo an actual royalty. What I think might be a legitimately workable model is a software license that incorporated more features of independent-employment contracts. Although companies would incur added costs for the procedures of paying a potentially large and diffuse group of “employees,” those costs should be well offset by not having to pay employees who don’t produce well and by not having to seek out the best employees, since the best gamers will make themselves apparent through the in-game meritocracy.

    Now, there are clearly some public policy questions that might arise with such a scheme. In a country with a serious unemployment problem, would we want to allow a system where so many “workers” would be paid less than national wage standards? On the other hand, if we take the view that these gamers are more like independent contractors, perhaps this is better seen as an innovative way to compensate individuals for their commitment to solving social problems in their leisure time. I think the “production” of the gamers is justifiable when they are contributing to scientific discovery and social problems, but we’ll have issues when they cross the line into inexpensive contract labor for simply devising new products. Plus, who would really want to play “Design-a-Snuggie” for hours on end? On second thought, I don’t really want to know the answer to that question.

  2. Katie Brown says:

    I too find it fascinating that Jane McGonigal has found a way to channel gamers’ energy towards finding solutions to global scientific challenges. I also wonder how the ‘authorship’ question will play out if these gamers discover something that could form the basis of a patentable invention. I can imagine that some gamers would not be satisfied with being named as co-authors of a scientific article about the discovery in which they participated, and would seek joint inventor credit on any resulting patent application. It appears that the Foldit license does not address this issue, but rather only focuses on players’ manipulation of the game software. Also, if a gamer created a patentable invention, which country’s patent laws would apply? Perhaps Foldit should supplement the license to put players on notice of the potential patent law implications of playing the game.

  3. Megan LaDriere says:

    Amazing idea by Jane McGonigal! It is fascinating that kids, especially in college, can play Super Smash Brothers or Halo for a solid 4-5 hours and then struggle to focus on studying for a mere half hour. Smart of her to harness this concentration and use it. Excuse me while I send this article to all my gaming friends. Now when people give them trouble for playing for hours, they can just explain that they are solving the world’s problems.

  4. Jordan Teague says:

    Having players collaborate to create patentable solutions to problems is an interesting thought. Mass collaborative creation may make judgments on the “nonobviousness” requirement of patents more challenging. On the one hand, case law suggests that normally a felt, unmet industry need signals that a solution is nonobviousness. Yet if a collective can solve this problem in mere days, was it truly nonobvious if one deems the gaming community to be the relevant “phosita” audience?

    Another interesting issue would be that of inventorship. If hundreds of gamers collaborate, who owns the invention? Social media and other Internet-based collaboration mediums have begun to complicate a similar inquiry in copyright law, that of joint authorship.

    All that to say, it seems that our intellectual property laws aren’t completely equipped to handle mass collaboration, a form of creating that is beginning to supplant the notion of independent, autonomous creating.