Thursday, 8 March 2012

Good game, good game.

It's 12:56am. You're on your 17th round of Bejeweled Blitz. You're about to smash your top score. Eyes sore, thumbs numb, you've done it. You're onto Level 18!

"I can do this. Just a few more levels, then I'll go back to bed".

Your bedside clock bleeps. It's 1am. Reality slaps you round the face and you ask yourself that all-too familiar question...

"What the **** am I doing with my life?"

Hey sad guy, it doesn't have to be this way. What if little-old-gaming-addict you could enjoy hours of online fun and make a positive difference at the same time? That dull sense of self-loathing could be a thing of the past. You could genuinely feel as though you've spent time doing something productive, enriching and selfless, while all the time having an absolute riot.

And when it comes to making a positive difference, there's nothing like finding a cure for cancer, right? I mean, that's the biggie.

Introducing Foldit; the online protein-folding game in which players use their skills to help solve critical problems in world health. Introductory puzzles teach players the rules and the 'basic' (ha!) laws of physics that dictate how protein strands curl and twist into 3D shapes. You then increase your 'Global Evolver Score' by solving the puzzles, creating your online profile and chatting to other players.

Up until now, traditional protein prediction software has been used to help scientists look at every configuration and the biological role it could play in fighting disease. Just using computer software, this is a mammoth task predicted to take hundreds of years. So scientists are asking the question, can humans get to the answer quicker?

And what do you know? It looks like we can. Researchers recently invited gamers to use the platform to compete in configuring an HIV/AIDS related retrovirus (the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus to be exact). Those clever gamers took just ten days to produce a 3D model of the enzyme, something that has stumped scientists for 15 years. When a high-scoring 13 year-old (going by his Foldit alias of 'Cheese') was asked about his method, he simply shrugged and said 'it just looks right'. Looks like 2011's answer to Tetris has uncovered the next protein-folding prodigy...

When it comes to gaming for good, Foldit has it nailed. Although it does take a while to get your head around hydrogen bonds and hydrophobic patches, there's definitely something satisfying about the process. After playing for just 15 minutes I'm onto puzzle 16 of 32, and although I'm feeling a bit smartypants, I'm certainly no match for 'Cheese' yet. When I've found the cure for Alzheimer's though, I'll give you a shout.

As so elegantly put by, "If you're going to waste your life playing games on Facebook, you might as well help the world while you're at it."

So stop mowing your farm, quit mining for diamonds and leave those birds alone. It's time to game for the greater good.

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