How games help us answering tough scientific questions?

Games have a huge potential in engaging people all over the world. We spend about 3 billion hours per week playing games. Recently some scientists are hoping to use this human capital to tackle tough scientific questions in their field of research. But howcan researchers engage people helping to answer extremely complex research uestions?
“Research games” are designed to solve real science problems by engaging a huge amount of persons.

So far some “research games” have demonstrated what this huge amount of man-power is capable of. What these games have in common is that you don’t have to have an advanced degree to play and they are open to everybody, therefore everybody can contribute in answering highly relevant research question.

EyeWire (http://eyewire.org/):

EyeWire is game which has been developed to map neural connections in the retina. Mapping those retinal neurons advances neuroscience research and can help us to understand how the retina works and how does it help us to see. Prof. Sebastian Seung from the MIT thinks understanding all those connections is the key to understand how the brain works. To chart the billions of neural connections Prof. Seung and his colleagues created the game Eyewire. Professional scientists are too few in number to map all those connections by themselves, therefore they wanted to engage the public.

About 35.000 people registered on the webpage so far and started to play EyeWire. Players get a virtual cube of material filled with neurons to analyse. The task of the players is to colour in a nerve cell in a cartoon drawing of a tissue slice. It looks like a 3-dimensional colouring-book and your job is to stay between the lines (boundaries of the neuron). Human vision is better than machine vision for correctly picking up such patterns. Additionally by playing the game the gamers teach the artificial intelligence of the game to become better in mapping those connections correctly.

Foldit (http://fold.it/portal/):

One of the most successful research games is called “Foldit”. Foldit uses the power of humans to think in 3D, because humans perform better in such tasks than computers. Players are presented with a bunch of loops, squiggles and zigzags representing amino acids of a protein. The task is to grab, bend or shake specific parts of the molecule with the cursor to fold this structure into its optimal state. Foldit tries to answer a major problem in biology. How proteins fold. This is an important issue; missfolding can lead to many different diseases. The game was a big success; half a million people are registered on the game. It was created by computer scientists and structural biologists at the center for game science at the University of Washington (http://www.centerforgamescience.org/site/).
Results generated by this huge online community have already accrued multiple publications in Nature and other high impact journals:

Predicting protein structures with a multiplayer online game. Seth Cooper, Firas Khatib, Adrien Treuille, Janos Barbero, Jeehyung Lee, Michael Beenen, Andrew Leaver-Fay, David Baker, Zoran Popović and Foldit players. In Nature 466, 756-760 (2010).

Algorithm discovery by protein folding game players. Firas Khatib, Seth Cooper, Michael D. Tyka, Kefan Xu, Ilya Makedon, Zoran Popović, David Baker, and Foldit Players. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2011).

etc.

Those were just two examples how games or gamers can help us to answer tough research questions. Another very interesting game is called EteRNA  (http://eterna.cmu.edu), which is also quite successful and really interesting to play. On the one hand you contribute to science by playing the game and on the other hand you learn some basics about biochemistry.

So let’s start playing.

Best,

Manuel Ninaus

Links:

http://eyewire.org/

http://fold.it/portal/

http://eterna.cmu.edu

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