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Some Computer Games Can Save Lives

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 31, 2013

Humans enjoy competitive play, and scientists are designing computer games to engage that desire and tap talent for solving complex research problems.

The game Phylo is an online pattern matching puzzle game that will give researchers a better understanding of genetic codes, and may help identify the origins of genetic diseases. "Games for Science," a story by Dan Cossins in The Scientist Magazine, explains that multiple sequence alignment (MSA) is used to identify functional elements in the genome and possible disease triggers. Jerome Waldispuhl, a bioinformatician who created the game with , notes the human brain is very good-even better than the best computers-at recognizing and sorting visual patterns and realizing when a general rule is broken.

A Wired story by Mark Brown outlines what players are asked to do. They look at blocks of different colors that represent the different letters of the genetic code A,C,G and T, for adnine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, and they have to line up as many of the same colors as possible, avoiding gaps that represent mutations. Within months of its release in 2010, Phylo had 12,000 registered users and 3,000 regular players. A story in PLoSONE reported that the gamers outdid computers in matching up disease genes. Its creators say Phylo is pure game, and players don't have to be versed in science. Try Phylo yourself here.

The Scientist Magazine says Foldit, created by biologists and computer scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle, was the first and possibly the most influential of the crowd-sourced research games. Players have to work out the three dimensional structures of proteins by folding virtual chains of amino acids. Players are presented with a visually disorganized mass of shapes representing the amino acids in a protein, and they use a cursor to assemble them into a stable structure that uses the lowest amount of energy, just as molecules do in real life. Designers tested players to see whether they could replicate structures of proteins puzzles scientists had already solved-and they did. In 2011,players made a breakthrough. Scientists had been trying for a decade to solve the structure of Mason Pfizer Monkey virus that causes an AIDs-like disease in monkeys. The gamers did it, and not all of them were scientists. Watch Lucy Walker's animated documentary on how a game team solved the challenge.

The Cure is a serious, biology based card game designed to help fight cancer. It's a bit like poker, except that you don't know the rules when you start. As you play the game, you both learn and teach the rules. It's another game that helps identify patterns and determine how they can combine and reproduce. The game is designed by The Scripps Research Institute. Data provided by players may help predict which cancer cells are likely to metastasize and how quickly, and that information could help treat patients diagnosed with cancers.

The Scientist Magazine story, here, tells about other research games as well as games designed to enhance several levels of science learning. Games with animated characters that help children with autism learn social and behavioral skills also are described.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  games  innovation  technology 

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