Every fall our family visits a farm with a corn maze and pumpkin patch. The outing gives us a chance to get lost among rows of corn, select Halloween pumpkins from a field as if we picked them ourselves, and muddy our shoes. We’ve tried a few farms over the years, but our favorite is one that adds smaller walk-through puzzles to its main labyrinth. We enjoy finding the right pattern to hop along in a grid of Jack O Lantern-themed stepping stones, or the proper sequence of stripes on posts to reach the last one. There’s something innately rewarding about finding those solutions, and off the farm game designers seek to direct that “something” toward real-world problems. One example is the University of Washington’s Foldit proteins game.
Foldit presents online players with puzzles that have a purpose. Since 2008, this game has relied on the puzzle-solving power of over 300,000 subscribers to discover possible shapes of proteins. The game displays a three-dimensional model of a protein and players must use a range of tools to stretch, twist, freeze and shake that protein into the best shape possible. While the human player changes the model’s shape, a computer program gauges the quality of the design and scores it. A player ‘wins’ a round when the design reaches the target of high points/stable design.
The computing power of the gaming crowd is impressive. A recent article in Wired explained how the combined efforts of this online community can present solutions faster and with more variety than the most sophisticated software programs. While the algorithms in the software do a fine job of judging results, so far they cannot generate the range of possibilities that humans can. Computers don’t obsess over puzzles; humans do. According to that Wired article, a team of Foldit collaborators designed in three weeks a protein that had stumped researchers for over ten years.
You can see how this team, called The Contenders, went about mapping the Mason-Pfizer Monkey Virus in this video:
The Foldit team also has sent its online gamers a challenge taken right from the headlines: the Ebola virus. The game has presented at least four puzzles aimed at understanding the structure of Ebola, or how to negate its effects. Foldit recently released another Ebola-related puzzle for its 1,000th challenge (A new puzzle appears about once a week), and the team hopes the highest-scoring solutions will suggest more paths to follow. Whenever gamers create an especially intriguing model, scientists can take the design directly to the lab, build the protein, and see how it performs.
The game is not easy. Right now, after a couple of weeks, I’m stuck on the ninth of 31 training puzzles. (Just the number of practice puzzles helps show the complexity at work here). The game’s interface includes tools to drag, spin, freeze, and shake the model. Painful-looking spiky red spheres show where bits of the protein are getting too close to each other, and smooth red globes show when they’re getting too far apart. Pop-up boxes provide advice and encouragement, while a fireworks/glitter show celebrates solving the puzzle. I plan to make it through the introduction, and hope to join the hundreds of thousands of players who are putting puzzle-solving compulsions to good use. And I won’t have to get my shoes muddy.