These Gamers Chase Atoms, Not Aliens



12.13.2016

Looking to help humanity explore the cosmos? Advance our knowledge in biology or brain science? How about quantum physics or nanotechnology? Grab your Playstation and get to work! By playing science-based video games online, nonscientists are accelerating research in all these fields and more.

Researchers tap collective brainpower by designing video game challenges related to scientific questions. Nanocrafter asks players to attach strands of DNA, a codified genetic material, to build molecules. Quantum Moves directs them to find ways of manipulating and moving atoms. With their intuition and insights, gamers can sometimes find quick and creative solutions that computers would miss.

Move it to advance science. (ScienceAtHome)

The science-based games have all the trappings of regular video games — attractive graphics, exciting challenges, rewards and leaderboards. But they offer something that regular games cannot: access to prominent scientists and a chance to advance science.

Top gamers are listed as co-authors in scientific papers, and some can choose the names bestowed on their discoveries. EteRNA players design RNA molecules, which are found at the heart of every cell. The best designs are chosen by the gaming community and synthesized at a Stanford University lab.

Some online gamers are less interested in science, but they like the challenges. A half- dozen games released so far have attracted hundreds of thousands of gamers who know little or nothing about science. But they can learn the basics of game-related research as they progress.

Results

Not every proposed solution works but some do open promising research paths.

  • Players competing to solve 3-D puzzles posed by Foldit cracked the structure of a protein that scientists had pursued for more than a decade. This helped identify targets for HIV medications.
  • EyeWirers have mapped about 700 neurons in the mouse retina. This helps researchers understand how neurons connect to process information.
  • From the best EteRNA designs, researchers hope to put together a toolkit for exploring new avenues in nanoengineering.
  • Nanodevices produced by Nanocrafters may help deliver drugs directly to diseased cells.

Scientists are still testing the possibilities of gamification. But experts like Seth Cooper of the University of Washington, a co-creator of Foldit, believe it is “the future of scientific discovery.”

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