Foldit – A Video Game Fighting AIDS

Has anyone ever told you that playing video games is a waste of time? Well, it turns out that video games have played a significant role in a recent breakthrough in AIDS research.

The protein called retroviral protease is an enzyme that plays a critical role in HIV’s life-cycle and its development into AIDS. For years scientists have attempted to create an accurate model of the protein’s crystal structure. However, years of work and a multitude of approaches to the problem have yielded few results until now.

Fortunately, researchers at the University of Washington have developed an experimental online video game called Foldit. The University challenged gamers with little to no background in biochemistry to play the game. Within days the players had come up with models that researchers could begin translating into models of the protein. Within three weeks, the protein had been completely mapped.

Foldit was created through collaboration between the Computer Science and Engineering and Biochemistry departments and reached its first public beta in 2008. Foldit has players collaborate with team members and compete against other players to try and attain the highest score by creating the lowest energy models. As they work, high energy areas of the protein turn warmer reds and oranges while lower energy models turn relaxing blues and greens. Foldit leverages the strengths of human special reasoning, pattern recognition, and problem solving skills, while using computers patience and raw power for problems that are appropriate for those skills. Foldit’s lead designer, Seth Cooper, said in a statement, “Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans.” This is not the first win for Foldit, which has also been used to aid cancer and Alzheimer’s research.

These accomplishments through video games represent a greater trend towards “gamification”, which is the use of game design techniques to engage an audience in activities that may otherwise be boring or difficult. Some might say that it is turning aspects of life into games, especially video games. The possibilities for gamification are considerable. Imagine if we got level ups instead of grades or if office jobs were as addictive as World of Warcraft. The potential to make life more enjoyable and our efforts more effective is huge, and accomplishments like the ones realized with Foldit are sure and steady steps in that direction.

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