by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know that playing video games can help improve your brain. But did you know that playing video games can also help improve science?
There’s a growing trend of turning real scientific problems into video games and having people, rather than computers, work to solve them. Why use people? Well, it turns out that there are many things that the human brain can do better than a computer (especially if that human brain has been improved by playing video games – it’s a win-win circle).
Here are some new ways to have fun and help science, and all you need is a computer.
Good at solving visual puzzels? Try Foldit, a game that challenges you to find new ways to fold proteins.
Proteins, composed of long chains of joined-together amino acids, exist in each of the trillions of cells in your body and are the chief workers within those cells. Without proteins, you can’t live. For as fantastic as proteins are, they have one big problem: they’re small. So small, in fact, that scientists can’t see their shapes. And when it comes to proteins, shape is very important. Why? Proteins fold. Protein folding is the physical process in which polypeptides, or chains of amino acids, fold into specific three-dimensional structures. The shape of a protein determines its function, and the better scientists can understand a protein’s shape, the better they can understand what a protein does.
Foldit takes those amino acid chains and turns them into a sort of scientific Tetris. Small proteins can have hundreds of amino acids, large proteins often have thousands. By following the biological rules of protein folding (e.g. hydrophobic amino acids need to be on the inside of the protein), the goal is to find the protein’s most stable state – the shape it would fold into in real life. Find the lowest state, get the most points.
The researchers behind Foldit keep track of every solution every player finds. Because there are so many ways that even a small protein can fold itself, figuring out which way is the best way is a continuous problem in biology. Right now, the goal of the game is to show that human protein folders can be more effective than computers at predicting protein structures. If this turns out to be true, the folding strategies used by people will be programed into computer software, and players may someday be asked to work on proteins that do not have known structures and even design new proteins.
Watch Foldit in action!
Want to work on a slightly bigger scale than proteins? Check out Zooniverse. Zooniverse is the largest internet Citizen Science project, and it asks members to help NASA, museums and universities around the world explore the universe. That sounds like a big project (and it is!), but the more people who participate, the more the world learns about everything happening out in space.
How can you participate in Zooniverse? Well, take your pick! Want to explore photographs of the moon, looking for craters, boulders and even the occasional piece of space hardware left behind by moon landings? Or, maybe you’d be more interested in monitoring images of the sun looking for solar flares? How about the chance to be the first person to see evidence of a supernova? There are over 300,000 people participating in the six Zooniverse projects, and they can always use a couple more.
The two great thing about all these video games? First: You get to decide when to play, what to play, and how long to play. You’re a researcher on your own terms. Second? Scientists really do use the data you create. So go forth, play games, and help advance science!
P.S. There’s a third great thing about the games: they’re really fun. I can’t stop playing Moon Zoo.