We always knew gamers had serious smarts, but now the rest of the world knows it, too. Gamers have been listed alongside scientists as responsible for cracking the code of how an enzyme of an AIDS-like virus is put together.
The accomplishment, chronicled in a recent issue of Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, is a puzzle that has stumped science for well over 10 years. The enzyme M-PMV, in the protease family, is key in the molecular structure of retroviruses that causes AIDS in simians and includes HIV. Understanding how a virus is put together is a major leap towards understanding how to construct drugs to combat disease.
Here's where gamers come in. In 2008, the University of Washington launched a "video game" called Foldit. Gamers are divided into groups and given tools like any other online problem solving game. Their challenge is to unfold chains of amino acids that are the building blocks of enzymes and proteins. It took gamers only three weeks to create an accurate model, and it is the first time they are credited with contributing to scientific problem solving.
Why did scientists need the players? Microscopes can only show things in two dimensions, so when scientists look at models of the enzyme they need 3D depictions in order to create drugs that can effectively target all parts of the virus. Computers are great, but they lack the intuition and inspiration that humans can bring to the table.
Gamers — and a gaming environment — provide a perfect storm for problem solving. Gamers apply the reasoning and team skills that round out the computer's tools and environment. And let's not forget the competitive spirit to push a quest through to completion:
Foldit players leverage human three-dimensional problem-solving skills to inter- act with protein structures using direct manipulation tools and algo- rithms… Players collaborate with teammates while competing with other players to obtain the highest-scoring (lowest-energy) models. [PDF]
Here's looking forward to the next challenge video games help tackle.