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Michael Clinard For all their virtual accomplishments, gamers aren't feted for their real-world usefulness. But that perception might be about to change, thanks to a new wave of games that let players with little or no scientific knowledge tackle some of science's biggest problems.
And gamers are already proving their worth. Inpeople playing Folditan online puzzle game about protein folding, resolved the structure of an enzyme that causes an Aids-like disease in monkeys.
Researchers had been working on the problem for 13 years. The gamers solved it in three weeks. A year later, people playing an astronomy game called Planet Hunters found a curious planet with four stars in its system, and to date, they've discovered 40 planets that could potentially support life, all of which had been previously missed by professional astronomers.
On paper, gamers and scientists make a bizarre union. But in reality, their two worlds aren't leagues apart: Genetic analysis, for instance, is about finding Help with science and patterns among seemingly random clusters of data. Frame the analysis as a pattern-spotting game that looks like Candy Crushand, while aligning patterns and scoring points, players can also be hunting for mutations that cause cancer, Alzheimer's disease or diabetes.
This is a new way of working for scientists, but as long as they learn how to trust games developers to do what they do best — make great games — then they can have thousands of people from all around the world working on their data.
As a planet we spend 3bn hours a week playing online games, and if even a fraction of that time can be harnessed for science, laboratories around the world would have access to some rather impressive cognitive machinery.
The trick, though, is to make the games as playable and addictive as possible — the more plays a game gets, the larger the dataset generated and the more robust the findings. He explains that while successfully entertaining the masses, these games are meeting a very pressing need: Considering how many open scientific problems there are, and how few scientists there are, it's clear that we're stymied in the progress of science simply by the number of able and interested people out there.
Zooniversea website that offers a wide range of online citizen-science projects including Planet Hunters, estimates that, together, their volunteers give them a virtual office block of people working around the clock on scientific questions.
If you want to join in and become a fully fledged citizen scientist, or if you just want to contribute to science on your way to work, here are 10 of the best games around. But be careful, because they're all pretty addictive. But that shouldn't be a surprise… they've been designed, by scientists, to be so.
Make patterns and research diseases It's tough to know what to like more about Phylo, the colourful puzzles or the jazzy music. Either way, their combination makes the complicated world of bioinformatics, or more specifically multiple sequence alignment optimisation, incredibly accessible.
By pushing around coloured blocks into patterns, you're actually aligning DNA from different animal species, helping research into genetic diseases by identifying disease-associated or mutated genes. Beat algorithms and other players by aligning the patterns and minimising gaps as much as possible.
Foldit Make a shape and understand proteins A bewitchingly addictive puzzle game. Use shakes, tweaks, wiggles and rubber bands to twist and contort your protein into its most stable and thus highest-scoring shape.
Each puzzle is a bit like a Rubik's cube in that there is only one perfect solution to each structure, but there are various intermediate or less stable ones in between. Work your way up the high scores tables by joining groups and sharing puzzle solutions with other players.
Study organisms to assess man's impact If you loved Monkey Island, this game, a visually beautiful point-and-click adventure game with a compelling narrative, is for you. You're a scientist with a secret past, trapped on a mysterious island where an explosion has destroyed the biology lab.
Photographs of organisms are strewn across the island. Collect and answer questions about the photos to earn game money, which you spend on tools to help you progress and hopefully get off the island.
Your classification of these real-life photos from around the world will help biologists to study the effects of urban sprawl on local ecosystems or to detect evidence of regional or global climactic shifts.
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Fraxinus Align patterns to save ash trees Think Candy Crush but with coloured leaves. To play this Facebook game, align different patterns with a reference pattern: Tussle for ownership of a given pattern by beating other players' scores.
In sorting the patterns to increasingly higher accuracy, you'll actually be helping to detect genetic variants that can protect Europe's ash trees Fraxinus excelsior from a deadly fungal disease. Each pattern represents actual DNA lengths from the trees and the fungus, from which scientists hope to identify genetic variants that either confer resistance or increase susceptibility.
RNAs, which have an important role in building proteins and regulating genes, are made up of four different types of nucleotide bases. Switch these to alter the RNA's configuration, increase its stability, and up your score. Target shapes get increasingly more complicated as you progress to becoming a puzzle architect or, in the lab mode, compete for the chance to have your own RNA designs synthesised and assessed by scientists at Stanford University.
Ora Protect a forest… to help protect forests Not released until later this year, but well worth keeping an eye out for. You'll be charged with taking care of a plot of New Zealand forest and protecting it from ravenous Australian bushtail possums.
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