When we talk about the “classics” of video game design, we often jump to games like Super Mario Brothers or Pac-Man. Yet, alongside Solitaire, Chess still remains one of the most played computer games online. The fundamental rules of Chess themselves are older than our understanding of electricity. Really, the only change in the digital age of Chess has been the challenge of being able to play against a computer opponent. This had spawned international fanfare as the world watched Kasparov, our modern day John Henry, face Big-Blue. Yet, Chess is a game born out of a problem-space (relatively) easy for computers to grind through all the necessary permutations.
Out in nature, biochemists have found their own game to master: how to fold amino acids into the most efficient protein structures. Like Chess, it has different pieces (sidechains, backbones, etc) with different properties (acidic/alkaline, hydrophilic/hydrophobic) and clearly defined rules for how they can or can’t interact. Yet, its problem space is incalculably larger than that of Chess, with more permutations to chase down than there are atoms in the universe. Given the importance of winning this particular game (curing aids/cancer/etc, generating clean energy, eradicating industrial waste) computers around the world have been set to the task. However, they only scratched the surface before onlookers watching the computers noticed that even they knew better results than the ones the computers were coming up with. That’s because this particular game draws upon exactly the kind of processing a neural network like the human brain can contemplate significantly faster than a microchip.
Instead of seeking more powerful computer algorithms, researchers at the University of Washington created Foldit, a casual game in which players attempt to manipulate protein structures themselves to increase a score calculated by the efficiency of their structure. Since the game is a direct representation of a game found inherently in nature, all the learning content is fully intrinsic to the game itself. In fact, a 13-year-old player was flown to Washington to explain a solution he crafted in the game, that later won first place in a competition among the world’s top professional biochemists.
One big difference between the learning content in this game versus a college textbook on the subject is that there are no right answers to try to replicate; only a real-time calculation of the different properties of a constructed protein. That’s because humans don’t yet know the answers. Thus, the top reward a student can shoot for wouldn’t just be astonishment from her teacher, it would be from a Nobel prize committee. In fact, one player recently discovered a protein that appears capable of binding to influenza viruses. Researchers are currently using the model to initiate real-world lab tests on it.
Foldit is produced by the University of Washington’s Departments of Computer Science and Engineering and Biochemistry. It is playable on Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. And for all the potential significance of players’ results, the game is recommended for ages 7 and higher.