Solving real problems using game mechanics
By Tori Garten
I’ll start by being upfront. I am not a gamer. The last video game I played with any passion or level of addiction was Frogger. I never even really got into Tetris. I do know enough gamers to be able to say “The Cake is a Lie” and know that will win me a special place in their hearts.
The concept of using game mechanics to solve real world problems was a big one at SXSW this past March, with Keynote speaker Seth Priebatsch speaking about it in-depth. So I was particularly excited to see a recent news release from the University of Washington describing how in 3 weeks gamers were able to “produce an accurate model of the enzyme” whose “configuration had stumped scientists for more than a decade”. “This class of enzymes, called retroviral proteases, has a critical role in how the AIDS virus matures and proliferates. Intensive research is under way to try to find anti-AIDS drugs that can block these enzymes, but efforts were hampered by not knowing exactly what the retroviral protease molecule looks like.”
This is an example of crowdsourcing, collaboration, game mechanics and social networking at its best. Instead of doing each of these activities in isolation, these elements were brought together as a powerful tool to solve a real world problem. “The researchers noted that much attention has been given to the possibilities of crowd-sourcing and game playing in scientific discovery. Their results indicate the potential for integrating online video games into real-world science.”
Frequently the value of social networking is questioned, and at times it appears we may just be doing it because we think we need to in order to keep up with the Agency next door. Perhaps we need to take these baby steps and lessons learned and start combining some of our efforts with social networking, collaboration and challenges to solve a big problem rather than just, for example, producing videos on a public health topic or posting news releases to our facebook pages. We’re succeeding with using these tools for communications needs, let’s start applying what we’ve learned to solving other problems beyond communications. These activities certainly have their own merit, but perhaps we can stretch a little further.
What will it take for us to “Level Up” ?
The Fold-it game used by the researchers at the University of Washington shows it can be done and have incredible results. What if we broadened our thinking on what collaboration means? Instead of just providing a “collaboration area” for researchers to share information and documents, what if we broke open the space by combining collaboration, challenges, crowdsourcing and social networking, using game mechanics to encourage all kinds of people to contribute to the resolution of real research problems?
What if we focused not just on researchers and scientists collaborating together but provided mechanisms for gamers and scientists to come together, like University of Washington has done with the Center for Game Sciences working with Dr. David Baker’s biochemistry lab to create the Fold-it game? We should look closely at the model used by the University of Washington researchers and see how we can extend it to our own research efforts in the government. We’ll need to identify the barriers that are inherent in government work and work through those barriers so we can use the collective brainpower that is out there.
We can see further examples in the gaming community itself. The lead developer I work with on producing new web site functionality for NIAID, Jake Jester, described to me how Valve Software held a real life gaming event for the release of the new Portal 2 game. Clues were scattered in a set of 15 games that were released in one special bundle, providing clues to the upcoming released date of the Portal 2 game, rewarding players with early access to the game based on their contributions to solving the puzzles.
“Some of these puzzles were incredibly difficult, and spanned a wide variety of disciplines from advanced mathematics, to audio and video codec mastery, to advanced cryptography puzzles. The community ate it up. There were thousands and thousands of people working on it at once, smashing through the puzzles one at a time. It was incredibly fun and illustrates the amount of untapped brain and computing power just sitting out there.” Couple this enthusiasm for solving puzzles and games with the success demonstrated by the Fold-it game and we see a barely tapped community that is interested and capable of solving puzzles that result in real science advances.
In cases where we have the basics of social/new media covered, let’s keep advancing and level up to thinking about game mechanics as another tool in our problem solving toolbox. Not only can we apply the idea of gaming to our citizen engagement strategies on the communications level, but perhaps we can pave the way in helping others see the value in applying game mechanics to their own areas of responsibility.
- Firas Khatib, Frank DiMaio, Seth Cooper, Maciej Kazmierczyk, Miroslaw Gilski, Szymon Krzywda, Helena Zabranska, Iva Pichova, James Thompson, Zoran Popović, Mariusz Jaskolski, David Baker. Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players. Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nsmb.2119
- Molecular structure of retrovirus enzyme solved, doors open to new AIDS drug design. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 19, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110918144955.htm
|Tori Garten is Chief, New Media and Web Policy Branch in the Office of Communications and Government Relations at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The full office location acronym is HHS/NIH/NIAID/OCGR/NMWPB.|
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