Most of us would probably like to be citizen scientists, but we're too busy — and yet we sink billions of hours into social gaming. So some savvy researchers are harnessing our love of gaming, to help advance the goals of science, using thousands of brains to sort through data. Here are eight games you can play... for science.
Top image: The Robot Graveyard on Forgotten Island, via Citizen Sort
The idea of using games to conduct research is not new. One of the oldest research-oriented games, Foldit, has been online since 2008 — and has generated real, tangible results in the field of protein folding that could have applications in creating treatments for AIDS, cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease. The success of Foldit has spurred the development of a handful of other research-driven games.
It's actually surprising how few games have been developed — in comparison to the reams of academic publications on the idea, and the encouraging results from existing projects. You have to wonder where the bottleneck in production is occurring. Are scientists and game developers not linking up? Is the funding not there? Is using games for research stigmatized? Maybe we are just now getting to the point of having mature, social gaming platforms and the associated buy-in by researchers and the public. One good sign is that more universities are adding programs and curricula that marry science and gaming. This — along with two new games slated for release this year, Brain Flight and GeneRun — bring hope that games for scientific research might be picking up traction.
But while we're waiting for the next wave of games that blend science, technology and culture, here are some games you can play now to help advance scientific research. The projects in this list contain some identifiable element of gameplay, and don't include other crowd-sourced projects like Planet Hunters — which might be interesting, but aren't necessarily games.
Foldit is the granddaddy of crowd-sourced research games and has proven that games are a viable way to get results. Players were able to discover the structure of a monkey HIV virus, a problem that had stumped scientists for over 10 years, in just 10 days. The game itself is a 3D folding puzzle. Players are challenged to fold proteins into compact designs and are scored on various criteria like size and whether hydrophobic side chains are buried inside the structure. Players can work alone or with teams, to compete in puzzles and challenges.
In EteRNA, the goal is to coax RNA molecules into specified shapes. The player is presented a chain of circles representing nucleotides and has to swap their colours. Each colour represents one of the four nucleobases that are the building blocks of RNA. Different bases create different bonds which dictate the shape of the RNA. To clear a level, the player has to recreate a given shape. Once the player has reached certain mastery they can play in the lab section of the game, where researchers challenge players mimic all new RNA shapes. These are shapes the researchers would like to learn to make in reality. The best designs are then synthesized in the lab and scored. EteRNA is a really slick game that is rewarding enough as a puzzle — but it's further enhanced with achievements and friendly competition.
EyeWire is attempting to map the brain, starting with the connections between retinal neurons. The actual gameplay is a cross between a hidden objects puzzle game and MS paint. An AI picks a neuron, and the player fills in the spots it could not identify. A 3D model of the player’s work is generated on the fly, as an additional tool for identifying neural paths.
If you like gem-swapping games, Phylo is for you. The science is well masked by its cool abstracted interface and swinging music. A player might not identify Phylo as anything more than a casual game. In actuality, though, the different coloured squares represent DNA nucleotides, and the game is using human pattern recognition to perform multiple sequence alignment. The data used in the game has already been run through computer algorithms, so the human players are actually optimising the computer's results.
The Cure is not a game to be taken lightly. It seems to require a great deal of time, research and effort. The user interface is also unintuitive. The game is working on developing a genomics-driven predictor of breast cancer prognosis. The mechanics are represented as a card game, in which the player tries to create the best hand. The hand is created by selecting cards that represent different genes. The hand is scored “by using the genes that you select to train machine learning algorithms to classify real biological samples. The better the genes reflect the phenotype, the better you will score in the game.”
The Citizen Sort website is a collection of three different games that are used to classify and characterise different animal species. The players are asked to determine various characteristics of animals in photos. Players don't need to know anything about each animal or what it is called, just use their powers of observation. This sorting allows researchers to identify and name the animals. These games are perfect for the budding naturalist. The interface and art style skew pretty young.
This website is a showcase for different games that were developed for the study of AIs. Playing the games doesn't let you participate directly in research, but the games are either creating large data sets for research or generating recommendations that inform the next iteration of the game and the subsequently improved AI. A disturbing thought when it comes to the game NERO, which is about training networked robotic armies.
This intriguing game isn’t out yet, but is set to launch in Spring 2013. Brain Flight is another game with the ambition of mapping the brain. Details about the actual gameplay are scant, but it does seem to involve soaring through a 3D model of a mouse brain. It is worth keeping an eye on.
This game isn’t about science per se, but it's worth mentioning as a research game. The project has several rapid-fire games, that centre around tagging pieces of art and ultimately creating metadata for the objects. Potentially fun and interesting for the art lover.
Top Image Neurons Traced by Daniel Berger of Seung Lab