Video Gamers Work With Scientists, Find Elusive Molecule’s Structure


Image: University of Washington

The next time someone tells you that playing video games is a waste of time, or that apart from simulators they have no practical uses, you now have some serious ammunition on your side. A team of video gamers playing a game that has players manipulate various molecular structures to find the ones that fit scientific criteria has found the structure of an enzyme that could prove key to finding a cure for AIDS.

What’s more, scientists have been working on this puzzle for ten years. The video gamers found the structure in less than ten days. The game they played is called Foldit, one of a number of games that attempt to make a fun activity out of crowdsourcing scientific discoveries. Such games haven’t exactly given commercial video games a run for their money, but some have a loyal community of players — and of course there’s hope that this discovery will lead to some growth in the games’ popularity.

Some groups are trying to leverage this kind of game for use in educational environments as well. They figure that, if making a game out of scientific investigation can lure people who have no scientific training to invest their time solving important puzzles, it might also make school learning more palatable to kids. It remains to be seen how effective this approach will be, but it seems clear now that the original idea has some very serious merit to it.

Now the question is: What kind of problem do you suppose my wife might believe would be solved by Batman: Arkham City?

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