Posts Tagged ‘serious games’

Exoplanets. Planets beyond our solar system, far removed from Earth’s comfortable neighborhood. Exotic. Mysterious. Dramatic. The domain of science fiction fans and UFO and SETI enthusiasts worldwide, exoplanets conjure images of wild landscapes populated by strange, alien creatures either (depending on who you talk to) hell-bent on our destruction, dedicated to our salvation, or completely indifferent to our presence.

Exoplanets have a long history of speculation, with varied results. Sixteenth-century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was the first person to put forward the view that fixed stars similar to the Sun must also be orbited by planets similar to Earth. He said (rather bravely, I might add),

This space we declare to be infinite… In it are an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own.”

Bold, daring, and spectacularly ill-timed: he philosophized during the Roman Inquisition. Not known for open-mindedness, the Inquisitors burned him at the stake.

Sir Isaac Newton echoed Bruno’s ideas 200 years later in the conclusion to his revolutionary 18th-century monument to mathematics and philosophy, the Principia:

And if the fixed stars are the centers of similar systems, they will all be constructed according to a similar design and subject to the dominion of One.”

By Newton’s time, cooler heads prevailed, and he fared much better. Even so, he was still long gone before his theory was validated: Scientists discovered the first exoplanet in 1988, and as of October 25, 2011, they’d confirmed another 693. This may sound like a lot, but NASA’s March 2009 launch of the Kepler spacecraft provided scientists with a flood of data that completely overwhelmed them. Tasked with searching for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, Kepler discovered 1781 candidates between May 2009 and September 2011.

Faced with this incredible volume, scientists turned to the public for help via a browser-based game called, appropriately enough, Planet Hunters. Launched in December 2010, 40,000 citizen scientists have used Planet Hunters to help professional astronomers analyze light from 150,000 stars, in the hope of finding (ideally) Earth-like planets orbiting around some of them.

After a combined 60 years of man (or woman) hours later—and barely a month since gamers unlocked the structure of an HIV-like virus (see my 9/2011 post “When scientists fail, call in the gamers!”)—amateur virtual astronomers struck gold with the discovery of two officially-confirmed candidate planets. This may not seem like much to crow about, but it’s a significant achievement. First, these are citizen scientists, not professionals. And second, according to Oxford University’s Dr. Chris Lintott, one of the physicists behind Planet Hunters,

These are planets that had slipped through our fingers. They had escaped our automatic detection methods, and they’ve been rescued by the heroic efforts of the people who visited our website.”

Debra Fischer—Yale astronomer, exoplanet expert and co-leader of the Planet Hunter project—is similarly excited by the astro-gamers’ success:

This is the first time that the public has used data from a NASA space mission to detect possible planets orbiting other stars. As soon as I saw the Kepler data, I knew this would be a great project for citizen scientists.”

Big news, indeed, and yet another instance of science tapping the boundless creative energy of gamers. As videogames continue to evolve, and as we move beyond media hype and examine their reality—what they’re truly capable of accomplishing—we can recapture the energy spent vilifying them and direct it towards answering some of humanity’s burning questions, tackling our greatest challenges, and finding solutions to our most urgent problems.

You can read more about the gamers’ discovery here

here

…and here

And you can find an abstract of the scientific paper presenting the discovery here.

Check out the Planet Hunters website here.

And to learn more about NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, follow this link.

The railgun. Staple of sci-fi film and literature and the Holy Grail of videogame weaponry. Legendary for its destructive power, it uses electromagnetism to launch a solid projectile from a pair of metal rails with enough force to penetrate virtually any barrier and reduce an organic target into a mass of beautifully-rendered, digital goo. Also known as a mass driver or fuel rod gun (for its use of depleted Uranium slugs as ammo), a version of the railgun first appeared in the 1897 novel A Trip To Venus, in the guise of an electric device used to launch vehicles into space. Over the years, many variations have appeared across the sci-fi landscape, but it wasn’t until id Software’s first installment of the Quake series in the mid-‘90s that the railgun gained notoriety as a weapon of mass destruction (sorry for the pun, but it couldn’t be helped).

Where fiction begins, reality often follows: Scientists and inventors have toyed with designs for electromagnetic weapons and delivery mechanisms since 1918, and have even created small-scale, working models. However, the vast amount of energy required to power a full-size railgun confined them to the realms of imagination and speculation.

Until recently, that is. On January 31, 2008, the US Navy changed the game, firing a shell out of a prototype railgun at 2,520 m/s (for comparison, the M16 assault rifle’s muzzle velocity is a mere 930 m/s). Expected performance of the finished weapon (available to the Navy between 2020 and 2025) is nearly double that—an astonishing 5,800 m/s—and it’ll be able to hit a five-meter object at a distance of more than 370 km.

Why is this important? Railgun-fired projectiles pack more punch than traditional explosive-filled shells, and in a smaller size, which means you can carry more ammunition. Also, they’re not explosive, which eliminates the hazards of transporting a lot of volatile and dangerous ordnance around—good news for our servicemen and women.

However, and more to the point, it’s a convergence of videogame fiction and military reality. And it’s hardly the first. One of the most publicized examples is a game the US Army released in 2002 called America’s Army—the first videogame ever developed with military recruitment as its specific goal.

Built on the Unreal game engine (a very popular first-person shooter, or FPS), America’s Army immerses players in the world of the US Army—giving them a visceral and extremely accurate experience of life as a soldier. The portrayal of weapons and combat is highly realistic: you go limp after taking one or two hits, the next one finishes you. You’re also bound by the Army’s Rules of Engagement: shooting civilians or taking out one of your teammates lands you in a virtual Leavenworth.

America’s Army quickly became one of the most popular FPS games of the time, receiving high marks for its gameplay and mechanics. And it grew to be far more than its developers intended. Started as a PR campaign to build Army brand awareness among America’s youth, it became a valuable training tool both within and outside the armed forces. Soldiers about to deploy could play through customized scenarios to help prepare for their deployments, new recruits and seasoned veterans alike could run combat simulations, and ordinary civilians could learn how to save lives.

Yeah, you read that right. A videogame teaching people how to save lives. America’s Army isn’t just about combat. Those inclined to the Hippocratic arts can take on the role of combat medic, and learn skills critical to perform as a first responder. You can’t just jump into it, though—you first have to pass a virtual course based on actual, real-world medical training, covering topics like prioritizing casualties, controlling bleeding, recognizing and treating shock, and administering aid to non-breathing victims. Paxton Galvanek, an avid America’s Army player, put that training to use when he found himself first on the scene of a multi-victim car accident (read the full text here):

In the case of this accident, I evaluated the situation and placed priority on the driver of the car who had missing fingers. I then recalled that in section two of the medic training, I learned about controlled bleeding. I noticed that the wounded man had severe bleeding that he could not control. I used a towel as a dressing and asked the man to hold the towel on his wound and to raise his hand above his head to lessen the blood flow which allowed me to evaluate his other injuries which included a cut on his head.”

Okay, that’s all well and good, and I’m all for the Army teaching people how to heal others. But what about the darker reality?

It’s no secret that the US military has employed various first-person shooters as combat training tools, both to teach personnel how to work together (the Marines modified id Software’s Doom II to do just that) and to acclimate them to the job of killing. Does it work? No one knows for sure, and you’ll get different answers depending on who you ask. However, much as the media likes to blame youth violence on violent videogames, no research has ever been able to prove a link between them. In fact, during the same period that videogame popularity began to rise, incidents of juvenile violence have actually dropped. So it seems that violent videogames are not, in and of themselves, a cause for concern.

For me, the more problematic question centers around unmanned military drones. Without a doubt, they provide clear advantages over boots on the ground: it’s safer to conduct reconnaissance in hostile areas or clean up undetonated enemy ordnance with a remote-controlled robot, and they also allow you to run risky missions without putting lives on the line. But what about drone bombing attacks or search-and-destroy missions? Pilots control both air and ground vehicles with joysticks and other videogame-style controllers, and view the world through a screen and from a perspective that’s highly reminiscent of an FPS or combat flight simulator. Yes, this keeps our servicemen and women out of harm’s way—and it’s hard not to view that as a good thing, especially for those of us who have friends and family in the military—but does war-by-remote insulate us from the brutality of conflict?

Students of war have noted that the further away one is, the easier it is to kill someone. Hand-to-hand combat or knife fighting is intensely visceral: your opponent is right there, sweating, breathing. Taking his or her life is a matter of individual survival, and becomes a personal affair, with nothing separating the two of you. Put a firearm in your hands and target someone across a square, and you’re now a step removed from your victim. You’re still doing the killing, but it’s more distanced. Climb into a bomber and drop explosives on a target thousands of feet below, and now you don’t even see the victims. You’ve removed yourself another step. You still have to be there, though. There’s still some connection.

Now imagine sitting sit down at a computer, joystick or D-pad in hand. You’re controlling a drone vehicle that may be on another continent entirely. The images on the screen in front of you have no connection to your reality, to the world around you. Where you are is safe, removed from combat. And they’re just images. How hard is it to pull the trigger now?

Again, there are undeniable benefits, and I would never argue against protecting our troops. But as we increase the distance at which they can operate, as we remove them farther and farther from the destruction they create and the horrible reality of war, we should stop and ask ourselves this: are we sanitizing the business of killing, and making it easier to carry out?

For more on remote drones, check out this CNN article here

… and Slate.com’s take here.

And for more about America’s Army, check out the official website here.

The United States population is growing, and I don’t mean our numbers. There’s no delicate way to say this, but too many of us are fat—really fat. Obesity in this country is an epidemic: about a third of all adults and 17 percent of children—three times the rate of 20 years ago—are obese, and not a single state in the union has met the Healthy People 2010 goal to lower obesity rates below 15 percent. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer… the list goes on. And the economic cost is staggering: obesity hammers us with a $200 billion medical bill, and it’s only getting worse. But most distressing of all, you know all those happy, carefree kids you see everyday? They’ll probably die before you do. That’s right, for the first time in US history, today’s generation of  kids probably won’t outlive their parents.

Okay, now that you’re paying attention, here’s the good news: The power to end obesity is in our hands. All we have to do is eat better and get more exercise—and there’s a great tool out there that can help. Anyone? Anyone?

You guessed it: videogames. Specifically, exergaming.

Active videogames have been around since 1982, but didn’t really take off until the introduction of Dance Dance Revolution in the early 2000s. The game’s surprising popularity tore the exergaming market wide open, and gave birth to the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360 Kinect, and Playstation Move—all variations on a theme, and with the laudable goal of getting average Americans off their asses and moving.

And boy do we move. Kung Fu, boxing, cycling, tennis, bowling, dancing, track and field—the list of options is virtually endless, and more and better games come to market every year.

“Okay,” you ask, with perhaps a hint of cynicism, “but do they really work?”

According to researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of Massachusetts, they do. They found that kids who played exergames for 10 minutes got a workout as good as or significantly better than a 10-minute walk at three-miles-per hour on a treadmill. In the March 7 issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Bruce Bailey, PhD (Brigham Young) and Kyle McInnis, ScD (U. Mass), wrote that

Exergaming has the potential to increase physical activity and have a favorable influence on energy balance, and may be a viable alternative to traditional fitness activities.”

And guess which is more fun. In fact, the researchers noted that entertainment appeal is exactly what makes the games so effective: Kids enjoy them, and are more likely to stick with the program—and reap the benefits—as a result. Now before you accuse me of hailing videogames as a panacea for US health issues, no one believes that exergaming can, or should, replace regular physical activity. As McInnis and Bailey noted,

Although exergaming is most likely not the solution to the epidemic of reduced physical activity in children, it appears to be a potentially innovative strategy that can be used to reduce sedentary time, increase adherence to exercise programs, and promote enjoyment of physical activity.”

George Velarde agrees. He’s the chair of the P.E. department at Sierra Vista Junior High in Canyon Country, CA. In 2003, he added an exergaming room to the school’s fitness center, and had this to say about it:

The kids don’t even know they’re working out, but they are working out even more at moderate to vigorous levels because of exergaming.”

Dr. Adam Noah—Technical Director of Long Island University’s ADAM Center and MoCap Lab, and an avid (and quite accomplished) gamer—plays DDR regularly, and he can tell you from experience that it’s much more like working out than gaming:

So when I play at this level [the highest level], I’m reaching 15 times my resting metabolism. That’s roughly equivalent to running on a treadmill at 10, 12 mph. People don’t do that. Yet I’m enjoying playing the game.”

And running on a treadmill is, in a word, boring.

Alright, so what’s the point of all this anyway? Just this: videogames, rather than being evil devices that turn people into couch potatoes, can actually play a key role in helping us get healthier. They may never replace real-world physical exercise, but when was the last time you broke a sweat watching TV? Think about it.

The LA Times has an article on exergaming studies here

…and WedMD has one on games and weight loss here.

For more on exergames and physical education, check out this link.

You can find a collection of news articles related to exergaming here.

There’s a discussion about exergaming research here.

Check out this article about gaming and fitness…

…and this one, too.

And for those interested, this link gives a brief history of exergaming.

I’m feeling a bit dishonest about something. Well, maybe that’s too strong a word. Let’s say disingenuous. Careful readers will have noticed that I’ve been engaging in a little linguistic sleight-of-hand with respect to games and health. I’ve argued that videogames can help treat a variety of physical and mental issues, and then gone on to talk about how people are adapting existing technology and developing new games to meet a specific health need. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s part of what makes videogames such a powerful tool.

“But wait,” you say. “These aren’t real videogames. They’re just training tools. Regular people can’t go out and buy them. How can a standard, run-of-the-mill Xbox or Wii game—you know, a real videogame—make people better? What do they have to offer? Where’s the evidence? Wait. Have you been lying to me all this time?”

Okay, okay, take a deep breath and sit down for a second. First of all, I have mentioned some real games in earlier posts, but… okay, mea culpa. You got me. Keep reading, though, ‘cause this is for you.

Playing the Wii can help you recover from a stroke. And I don’t mean some custom-built, made-for-rehab game here. I’m talking about the standard Wii Sports that anyone can go out and buy for 30-40 dollars (less if you’re a smart shopper). How do I know? Because videogame designer and overall genius Kent Quirk—who happens to be a friend of mine—actually did it. Regular sessions playing Wii Tennis and Wii Bowling were part of his post-stroke rehab. Kent summed it up this way:

Being able to stand up for 10 minutes and play a game of Wii Tennis was a real victory for me. And I certainly wasn’t going to go out on a tennis court and play real tennis at that point. So that was motivating and helpful to me.”

Motivating and helpful. Now contrast that with standard physical therapy. PT—or pain and torture, as it’s affectionately known by many who’ve gone through it—is painful, repetitive and downright boring. The problem is, it’s also necessary. So how can you take a treatment modality that’s vital for recovery and make it, well, fun?

Make a game out of it. Dr. Gustavo Saposnik, a neurologist and director of the Stroke Outcomes Research Unit at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, has been studying clinics and hospitals that do just that. Here’s what he found:

Basically, we found that patients in the Wii group achieved a better motor function, both fine and gross, manifested by improvement in speed and grip strength.”

The Wii’s not just for stroke rehab, either. It can be used to help people recover from things like broken bones, surgery, and even combat injuries. Why? Like traditional PT, the Wii uses the same principles of performing repetitive, high-intensity tasks that help repair damage. The difference is that the Wii makes it fun. Says James Osborn, who oversees rehab services at southern Illinois’ Herrin Hospital,

When people can refocus their attention from the tediousness of the physical task, oftentimes they do much better.”

At WakeMed Health’s facility in Raleigh, NC, patients from nine to 89 play Wii games to improve strength, endurance and coordination. According to Bill Perry, a retired police officer and WakeMed patient who used the Wii to help recover from a stroke,

It really helps the body to loosen up so it can do what it’s supposed to do.”

Doctors and therapists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center agree. They find that Wii therapy works very well for patients injured during combat operations in Iraq. Here’s Lt. Col. Stephanie Daugherty, Walter Reed’s chief of occupational therapy:

They think it’s for entertainment, but we know it’s for therapy.”

And what happens when you turn therapy into entertainment? Patients are more motivated to do it, they stick with it longer, and they get better faster. It remains to be seen whether active videogame systems like the Wii, Playstation Move or Xbox Kinect will ever replace traditional PT. But this much is undeniable: they sure as hell make it more fun.

To read more on how doctors use the Wii for therapy, check out this link.

For an overall summary of how the Wii is used for PT, click here.

You can see some videos of the Wii in action here.

For more info on stroke rehab and the Wii, click here

… and here.

And for an ABC news story on how senoirs use the Wii for rehab, click here.

Public safety is a tricky business. It is, by its nature, risky: Paramedics, firefighters, police, EMTs, first responders—they have dangerous jobs, and often put themselves in harm’s way to help others. When they go to work, lives are often at stake—sometimes theirs, sometimes ours, and sometimes both. For reasons that should be obvious, adequate and effective training of individuals pursuing this line of work is absolutely critical: Call me crazy, but getting thrown cold into an emergency situation doesn’t strike me as the best way to assess your skills.

Okay, so training is important. However, it’s also expensive, and budgets for public safety at all levels—local, state and federal—are stretched even during times of economic prosperity. It’s time-intensive as well, can be limited in reach, and usually requires safety personnel to travel outside their communities—taking them off the streets and reducing their departments’ abilities to respond to emergencies at home. I don’t know about you, but I’m not aware of any towns nearby that have dedicated training facilities on-site.

So how do we reconcile the need for comprehensive training with the expense of providing it?

Wait for it…

By using videogames, of course (you expected a different answer, maybe?).

This is exactly what groups like Virtual Heroes do for a living. Using 3-D game engines and game design techniques, Virtual Heroes builds scenarios within an immersive, virtual environment to help medical, military, public safety and healthcare professionals respond to catastrophic events in the real world. One of their flagship products, HumanSim, allows healthcare workers to sharpen their skills in realistic situations without risking real lives. They also create simulations for commercial clients who want to expand their ability to deliver on-the-job safety training. I watched one targeted at electrical workers. Arc flashes are scary things…

Okay, but how does this impact you, me, a typical big-city urbanite, or the average citizen in small town America? Let me bring this home. I live in western Massachusetts. Belchertown, to be exact. The end of last week, our local paper, The Sentinel, reported a story from the next town over about police and fire personnel training on an immersive, 3-D driving simulator. Big deal, right?

Actually, it is. First, the simulator was brought to them—right into the police and fire departments—allowing more personnel to go through the training than if the departments had to send them off-site. Also, had there been an emergency during the training sessions (thankfully, there were none), every single police officer or firefighter would have been available to respond. Perhaps more importantly, though, this training was provided free of charge, allowing cash-strapped departments to offer driver training to all their personnel—something they wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. According to Granby Police Chief Alan Wishart, who also took a turn behind the wheel,

We would not be able to do this on our own. If it wasn’t for them [Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association (MIIA)], it could be years before some of the officers saw this type of training. It’s a great opportunity for us.”

Granby Fire Lieutenant Brian Pike agreed, adding that they could provide additional scenarios—and there are hundreds available—without taking out the trucks.

Less emergency worker downtime, more personnel trained, zero cost to the community—it all adds up to more experienced public safety departments, better emergency response, and more lives saved. So the next time you hear a public safety success story, you may have to thank a videogame.

To read the original article, check out The Sentinel here.

You can learn more about Virtual Heroes here.

And you can read more about the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association’s simulator here.

Picture this: you’re behind the wheel of a military Humvee on the road to Fallujah, your unit’s team leader in the seat next to you and half a squad of Marines in the back. Tensions are high: Iraq is still a hotbed of violence, you’re traveling a dangerous road, and everyone knows the risks. Still, nothing’s happened yet. You’re just beginning to relax when a roadside bomb—one of the infamous IEDs—rips through the truck with a deafening roar. Your team leader dies instantly, but you barely have time to notice because the Humvee’s now on its back. Screams sound from behind you. Looking back, you can see your team through the billowing smoke—and it’s not pretty. A Hollywood makeup artist with an unlimited budget and a taste for the macabre would have a hard time duplicating the scene. Some of the men are dead, the rest horribly wounded. There’s something burning in the back, noise and smoke are overwhelming. You need to do something, but what?

Try taking off the VR headset.

Fortunately for you, this was only a simulation. But for many US servicemen and women, variations on the above scene are all too real. And for those who survive, healing from the physical wounds may be the easy part.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has always been a serious problem, and it’s getting worse: Iraq and Afghanistan are unique in the history of US military conflict (length of deployments, faster than usual redeployment, etc.), and seem to be contributing to growing mental health problems. According to Steven Huberman, PhD, dean of Touro College’s School of Social Work, in New York City,

Since the deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan started… we’re seeing a significant difference from other military involvements, in the number and types of injuries, the types of deployments, the nature of the military force, and the impact on families and kids.”

PTSD is often hard to identify, always difficult to treat, and has far-reaching impacts on sufferers and their families. In order to recover, victims have to confront the memories and emotions surrounding the traumatic event and eventually work through them. Ignoring them only creates more severe problems. The trick is confronting the memories safely.

Enter Virtual Iraq. Virtual Iraq is an immersive, 3-D virtual world that allows a PTSD patient to re-live a traumatic situation in a safe environment. Based on the videogame Full Spectrum Warrior, Virtual Iraq places the patient into a therapist-controlled combat scenario. During the scenario, the therapist exposes the veteran to the sights and sounds of battle at a level that he or she is emotionally capable of handling. As the patient progresses, the therapist can turn up the heat, enhancing the realism of the scene by delivering additional sounds and images—jets flying over, insurgents coming out of palm groves, IEDs, explosions—into the environment. The videogame provides a safe environment for the patient to confront their emotions and ultimately gain control over the PTSD.

Says Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a clinical psychologist at the University of Southern California—and Virtual Iraq’s developer,

VR puts a person back into the sights, sounds, smells, feelings of the scene… You know what the patient’s seeing, and you can help prompt them through the experience in a very safe and supportive fashion. As you go through the therapy, the patient may be invited to turn on the motor. Eventually, as they tell their story, you find out that it wasn’t just a vehicle in front, it was a vehicle with five other friends… The guy that died was going to be discharged in two months. You start to see a rich depth of story.”

This type of treatment—called virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET)—isn’t limited to combat vets, though. There are virtual environments for treating much more common fears, including flying, heights, storms and public speaking. Virtually Better—the company behind Virtual Iraq—also has other environments designed around specific traumatic events: Vietnam, Hurricane Katrina and the attacks on 9/11/2001.

Here’s Skip Rizzo again, this time in his roles as Associate Director – Institute for Creative Technologies, and Research Professor – Psychiatry and Gerontology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles:

Results from uncontrolled trials and case reports are difficult to generalize from and we are cautious not to make excessive claims based on these early results. However, using accepted diagnostic measures, 80% of the treatment completers in our initial VRET sample showed both statistically and clinically meaningful reductions in PTSD, anxiety and depression symptoms, and anecdotal evidence from patient reports suggested that they saw improvements in their everyday life situations. These improvements were also maintained at three-month post-treatment follow-up.”

Perhaps the best testament to the effectiveness of Virtual Iraq, though, comes from this 22-year-old Marine injured during combat operations in Iraq:

By the end of therapy I felt more like one person. Toward the end, it was pretty easy to talk about what had happened over there. We went over all the hot spots in succession. I could talk about it without breaking down. I wasn’t holding anything back. I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted.”

This young man—and there are many others—gained his life back in large part through the healing power of a videogame.

Maybe videogames do have something positive to offer after all.

A quick Google search for Virtual Iraq will give you more information than you ever wanted, but here’s a selection of the best links:

Here’s an article from the New York Times Health section.

The New Yorker magazine published an article on Virtual Iraq here.

Check out this article about Virtual Iraq from Veterans Today.

NPR has a similar story here.

The US Army’s official web page has a story on VRET and PTSD here.

Here’s Fast Company’s take.

A discussion of Videogames and PTSD is here.

And you can find Virtually Better’s website here.

For about 33 million people around the world, videogames may be a matter of life and death. That’s because gamers have just accomplished something that had confounded scientists for 15 years: They’ve unlocked one of the great mysteries of AIDS.

And they did it in three weeks.

Using an online game called FoldIt, gamers cracked the protein structure of a retrovirus similar to HIV—a critical step in understanding the cause of AIDS and developing drugs to beat it. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, scientists enlisted the help of gamers worldwide—and were astonished at how quickly they got results. Published yesterday in the journal “Nature Structural & Molecular Biology,” this is the first time gamers have solved a long-standing scientific problem, and may be the only time in history that gamers and scientists have appeared as co-authors. Bear in mind, also, that very few, if any, of the gamers have a background in biochemistry. Calling this a monumental accomplishment is an understatement on the level of referring to the Sun as a bit warm.

FoldIt screenshot

So how did they do it? Through modeling. Developed by the University of Washington in 2008, FoldIt is a game with a purpose: groups of players compete against each other to unfold chains of amino acids—the building blocks of proteins. When players sit down at their computers to play the game, they are presented with a 3-D model of an amino acid. As they work to unfold it, they can use online tools to rotate the model and view it from any angle. This allows players to “see” the protein structure in a way impossible through a microscope: in full 3-D. Why is this important? Pharmacologists need 3-D pictures of a protein in order to identify potential target sites for drugs. Seth Cooper, one of FoldIt’s creators, explained the gamers’ success simply:

People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at.”

And while that’s inarguably true, Firas Khatib, of the University of Washington’s biochem lab, acknowledged and validated something that gamers have always known. He said,

The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”

Kudos to all the gamers who made this a reality. Now just imagine what else we could solve if more people put that energy to use.

To read the original paper, click here.

You can also check out this article in Yahoo! News.

And to learn more about FoldIt, check out the website here

… and watch a video of the game in action here.