In only three weeks, gamers did what scientists weren’t able to do in a decade: they’ve deciphered the structure of an enzyme of an HIV-like virus. This isn’t some silly “Let’s Cure AIDS!” game or “Science Research Tycoon” we’re talking about here – it’s the real deal. We’re also not talking about charity work. We’re talking about real, honest to goodness, hands on science. It’s the latest example of games for good, and it might just be the key to a better understanding of retroviruses like HIV.
Foldit is a free game developed by the University of Washington in which different competing groups of gamers race to unfold chains of amino acids. Science folks will tell you that amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and unfolding them will give the scientific community a valuable model to examine and better understand its makeup. Gamers, however, will tell you that unfolding a chain of amino acid is a puzzle. A great big, surprisingly rewarding, puzzle. And gamers completing these puzzles is actually making the world a better place.
But why gamers? Couldn’t a computer just as easily automate the task? “People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,” says Seth Cooper, one of Foldit’s creators. “We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed,” adds Firas Khatib of the university’s biochemistry lab. “The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”
So the next time someone tells you that video games are a waste of time, just send them a link to this post. Better yet – just send them to download Foldit.
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