Daily Illuminator

October 19, 2011: Can Gaming Solve Real-World Problems?

Gaming advocates have long held the position that real-world solutions can come from games -- from socialization exercises to tactical thinking. But recently, gamers were presented with a new challenge: how can proteins fold?

Apparently, protein molecules are complicated enough that throwing the problem at a computer -- or a bank of computers, like the old SETI@home system -- wouldn't solve it in a time scale measured in less than decades. Biochemists, probability theorists, biophysicists . . . there's a big list of very smart people who would like to model this process.

And then a clever group came up with Foldit, which turned protein-folding into a game something like Tetris. Your score increases based on the internal energy of the structure. But the real goal isn't to build the "perfect" protein; it's to figure out the strategies that lead to really good proteins . . . strategies that can be applied to build custom proteins for AIDS research, to name just one application.

The results indicate gamers bring "radical moves, risks and long-term vision" that computers can't be programmed with. Foldit may be the first "games as a serious research tool" project, but it was so successful that we can expect more.

-- Paul Chapman

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