How playing games can help scientific research

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Ever felt that saving princess Zelda or “catching ‘em all” was not rewarding enough? If so, why don’t you help Science and play serious games?

In their wider definition, serious games are games designed for other purposes than pure entertainment. In scientific research, serious games have been developed to make the community of gamers participate in the resolution of complex problems that cannot be solved by machines.

Serious games in biomedical research

Indeed, humans are very efficient at recognising patterns, which is rather a difficult task for computers and algorithms. Serious games combine a pleasing interface, a challenging and entertaining problem to solve, and a will to help scientific research.  Problem to solve can be broke down into smaller tasks, which multiplied by the number of players can lead to great results.

How serious games can make a difference

A notable example of how serious games can make science go forward is the resolution of the crystal structure of the M-PMV virus retroviral protease. Stuck for more than 10 years on the resolution of its structure, researchers used the online protein-folding game “Foldit” and its community of gamers. After 3 weeks, the 3D structure of the protein was solved and published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

Popular serious games also include “Phylo”, where players try to improve multiple sequence alignments by moving blocks, “EyeWire”, dedicated to 3D reconstruction of neurons, or “EteRNA”, where players design RNA sequences that fold into target secondary structures.

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Player interface from the serious games Phylo (up) and EyeWire (down).

Serious games are also used in human and public health, to raise awareness on specific diseases, or to help patients and their family deal with a medical condition. Their use is now spreading to a lot of different disciplines such as teaching, politics, ecology, etc.

If you want to contribute to research and science while having fun, check out these games:

  • MalariaSpot, to quantify malaria parasites on thick blood smears.
  • Dizeez, a multiple-choice quiz to catalog gene-disease associations.
  • The Cure, where you use your knowledge to make informed decisions about the best combinations of variables (e.g. genes) to build predictive patterns.
  • GenESP, a gene annotation game where players contribute their knowledge of gene function and disease relevance.

If you want to produce, publish, or promote your own game, visit Science Game Lab, a platform for the promotion of scientific games with a purpose.

Game on!

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