When I was fourteen, I became obsessed with ‘The Legend of Zelda’. Although my father played Atari games occasionally, he did not understand my hours spent with ‘Zelda’ when I constantly replayed areas, took notes, and perfected my homemade maps on pages and pages of graph paper. For me, ‘Zelda’ was more than a game; it sparked my imagination. My father did not approve of my dedication, stating that playing many hours video games wouldn’t add up to much, wouldn’t improve any of my skills, and wouldn’t be of value to society. To him, those of us who played countless hours of video games would never contribute anything to society ever.
Foldit is a game (yes, I’ve played it). There are several introductory puzzles that show the tools available and how to fold the protein correctly. When you make the right moves, your score increases. Do well, and you move to the next puzzle. Also, there are achievements, following the recent trend in games to have achievements. On the Foldit site is a leaderboard; the higher the score, the more efficient and complex the protein. The game even has elements of an MMO. Players can communicate in a chat room and join a group, working together to figure out how to fold proteins into complex shapes. The game is interesting, but this is not a game review.
Why do I care about Foldit? I find Foldit fascinating because the gamer’s mind, the gamer’s way of thinking, is finally being recognized. Not all video games are the same, and Foldit is for players who enjoy puzzle games. Those with the ability to see patterns and can understand how to work with a 3D object can excel at the game. The goal is to change a protein’s structure so all of the right parts are in the best place. Players don’t even need to know what a protein is to play the game. All players need to know is that certain sections need to be moved, bonds must be made, and the parts need to align. Successful players understand that moving one part of the protein impacts the whole; they know when wiggling the protein will bring the entire structure together.
Why are proteins important? Although the human genome has been mapped, genes are the instructions for proteins, which are responsible for all human activity. Proteins break down materials, repair cells, and send messages through the body. The shape of a protein determines its function. If a protein has the incorrect shape, then the function won’t happen correctly. For example, Cystic Fibrosis is a result of the body making the wrong protein; the protein needed to regulate the thickness of mucus is not made, so the lungs fill with thick mucus that becomes trapped and infected. The study of proteins can help cure diseases and develop treatments for other conditions like Alzheimer’s.
Perhaps it is the freedom of thinking of the proteins as goals in a game that has made the results of the game useful to scientists. In the lab, scientists know the purpose of proteins, and many focus on real-world applications of their work. In a game, players usually don’t care about real-world applications. The game is about solving a puzzle, getting a high score, and moving on to the next puzzle. By focusing on the protein as a shape, gamers can create random changes in proteins that scientists haven’t thought of before. And players are generating results. According to ‘Scientific American,’
In one puzzle, the researchers asked users to remodel one of four amino-acid loops on the enzyme to increase contact with the reactants. In another puzzle, players were asked for a design that would stabilize the new loop. The researchers got back nearly 70,000 designs for the first puzzle and 110,000 for the second, then synthesized a number of test enzymes based on the best designs, ultimately resulting in the final, 18-fold-more-active enzyme.
Yes, computers are fast, but computers are only as good as their programmers. The more progress players make in Foldit, the more data can be input into computers, which in turn will produce even more results. Many attribute the way gamers think to the progress being made. In the article, Justin Siegel, a post-doctoral researcher, said, “I worked for two years to make these enzymes better and I couldn’t do it. Foldit players were able to make a large jump in structural space and I still don’t fully understand how they did it.”
How can gamers make that jump? Well, they get Super Meatboy through numerous spinning blades, they get Chell through Aperture and figure out GLaDOS doesn’t have cake, and they get Mario through shifting platforms in a 3D environment. By being able to see moving patterns and process a lot of visual information at once, many gamers have skills that can be quite useful other fields. I am not surprised that gamers have helped advance protein research; what surprises me is that it has taken others so long to realize the value of the gamer’s mind. On the surface it looks like we are wasting time, but games now are more than shooting invaders from space by moving an object back and forth. Games have become more complex since the 1970s, and the skills needed to play them have evolved.
In fact, I think this is why my father detested Nintendo. The Nintendo controller was more than a joystick and a button. I remember how frustrated he became when he could not get Mario to jump from one platform to the next. Mario constantly died when he played. My father never got past the first level. I could. I was successful at getting Mario to jump and to land where I wanted. I only got frustrated when I learned that the princess was in another castle.
With the success of Foldit, I wonder what other fields gamers could be of assistance. Folding proteins has to be the first step. All gamers need is the opportunity. Make a good game, and we will play. Get us to play, and who knows what we will discover.