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There are few games that have benefited society with real-world results that don’t fall under the term “educational”. Sure, I have a better understanding of the world having hunted down Carmen Sandiego more times than I can count, and I truly have a newfound respect for the frontier pioneers that crossed America having died of dysentery on the Oregon Trail. Sure there are tales of indirect applications brought about by video games, like purposely releasing plagues in World of Warcraft to test the spread of epidemics or analyzing the virtual economies of games like Entropia to better predict stock markets, but no game has the potential to solve the world’s most pressing problems more than ‘Foldit’.
‘Foldit’ was initially designed by David Baker, a protein research scientist at the University of Washington. The objective of the game is to fold the structure of selected proteins to the best of the player’s ability using the tools available to them. The highest scoring solutions are then analyzed by researchers, who determine whether or not there’s a native structural configuration (or native state) that can be applied to the relevant “real world” proteins. Scientists can then use such solutions by targeting and eradicating diseases, and thus creating biological innovations.
Putting aside the direct benefits of eradicating diseases, “Foldit” is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it utilizes the processing power of its networked users, utilizing a combination of distributed computing and crowd-sourcing rather than a single supercomputer (similar to SETI@home). More importantly though is this idea of “gamification”, making an otherwise mundane task appealing in order to get a large group of people to complete it.
“Foldit” made headlines in mid-2011 when players deciphered the crystal structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protease, an AIDS-causing monkey virus. While the puzzle was available to play for a period of three weeks, players produced an accurate 3D model of the enzyme in just ten days, a problem which had stumped scientists for 15 years.
Since its inception “Foldit” has attracted more than 46,000 registered users and that number is only going up, since the program is free to download. Initially I had reservations putting this game on the list but upon closer inspection if “Foldit” has the potential to treat cancers, eradicate AIDS, or to find a cure for the common cold, the question then becomes why shouldn’t this game be on this list.