Janos Barbero, The challenge of scientific discovery games

FoltIt is a protein folding video game. Proteins are chains of amino acids, and they form a unique 3D structure which is key to their function.

Distributed computing isn’t enough to understand protein structures. Game where you try to fold the protein yourself. Game design is difficult, but even more difficult when constrained by the scientific problem you are trying to solving. You can’t take out the fiddly bits. But players have to stay engaged.

Approach the game development as science. Collect data on how people progress through the game so that they could change the training so that they found it easier to do the difficult bits. Also use that info to improve the tools. Had a lot of interaction with and feedback from the players.

Also analyse how people use the different game-tools to do the folding, and see two in particular were used consistently by successful players.

Emergence of game community. Seeing people getting engaged. Had a fairly broad appeal, demographics similar to World of Warcraft.

Second milestone was when players started beating the biochemists, emergence of ‘protein savants’, had great intuition about the proteins, but couldn’t always explain it.

Have a game wiki so people can share their game playing strategy. Each player has a different approach, can use different game-tools. People develop different strategies for different stages of the game.

Humans are comparable or better than computers at this task.

Multiplayer game, they form groups or clans which self-organise, many groups have people who focus on the first phase, others focus on the endgame.

Effect of competition, as one person makes progress, others try to keep up.

Users can share solutions, network amplification.

Humans have completely different strategy to computers, can make huge leaps computers can’t, often looking at bad structures that lead to good, which a computers can’t.

FoldIt is just the first step in getting games to do scientific work. Problem solving and learning through game play. Looking to find ways to train people into experts, generalise to all spatial problems, streamline game synthesis for all problems, and create policies, algorithms or protocols from player strategies.

Expand from problem solving to creativity. Potential for drug design, nano machines and nano design, molecular design. Aim is to create novel protein/enzyme/drug/vaccine that wouldn’t be seen in nature.

Also want to integrate games into the scientific process. Design cycle: pose problem, get public interest, run puzzle, evaluate-analyse-modify-run-repeat, publish.