Do a Google Image search on the term “proteins” and you’ll find yourself face-to-face with a festive array of squiggly, multicolored ribbons that would look perfectly at home on a child’s birthday present (that, and a few dietitian’s displays of meat, fish, milk, cheese, eggs, beans and legumes, and nuts). Though my last biochemistry class is over a decade behind me, lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with these oddly shaped yet strangely beautiful computer-generated molecules. In fact, I’ve been doing a whole lot more than just looking at them—I’ve been rotating them, stretching and twisting them, even shaking and gently jiggling them, all in the name of Science.
I have, of course, been playing Foldit, a scientific puzzle game developed by researchers at the University of Washington in both the Center for Game Science and Department of Biochemistry. Players of the game compete to find the best (most stable) three-dimensional configurations for a wide array of protein polypeptides (hence the “folding”), in a bid to join human cognition to overworked computer programs in a computational approach to basic biology and disease treatment. First released in May 2008, the game has since become something of a media darling and may deserve principal credit for allowing the words “gamers” and “Nobel Prize winners” to be uttered in the same breath without a bolt of Scandinavian lightning crisping the speaker’s sacrilegious noggin.
While the game’s creators have mused that Foldit players might someday be eligible for Nobel Prizes in biology, chemistry, or medicine, serious games proponent and alternate-reality game designer Jane McGonigal has openly expressed her hope that a game designer will win the Nobel Peace Prize within the next twenty-five years. McGonigal mentions Foldit in her recent book, Reality is Broken, as an example of intellectually crowdsourcing gamer communities, moving beyond the harnessing of game hardware’s hefty processing power (exemplified by the Sony PlayStation/Stanford Folding@home project, also a protein-folding endeavor) to actually tapping the spatial reasoning and problem-solving drive of gamers themselves.
It’s hard not to view the hype over scientific accolades potentially accruing to non-specialists as distracting from the game’s real innovations in translating basic biological constraints (hydrophilic/hydrophobic side chain behavior, the stability of hydrogen bonds, amino acid sequence, and so on) into attractive and accessible gameplay. There’s a danger here of turning a Nobel Prize into just another accomplishment in the current craze for achievement systems in games and other areas of user experience (“You have won a Nobel Prize in Medicine! (1/5) Share on Facebook?”). I sometimes wonder whether there can be such a thing as service gaming, or game altruism, and whether competition need be the only model for the increasingly distributed nature of knowledge production. Perhaps friendly rivalry prevents the game from becoming merely unpaid labor, because as with many other “serious” games, Foldit also dramatizes the increasingly fine line between work and play.
Concerns aside, I’m duly impressed with what Foldit players and developers have managed to accomplish in such a short amount of time. Foldit represents a rather engaging step forward from sites like Freerice.com, where a player’s actions have little to no relation to the kind of charitable service provided by the site’s sponsors in return for participation. While correctly identifying Papua New Guinea on a map might be difficult the first or second time the question is posed, it’s not likely to stump you again and again—the rote quizzing of the World Food Programme’s site offers limited challenge that scales poorly with repeated visits and intensive time investment. In other words, Freerice.com does little to generate what McGonigal calls intrinsic rewards—“the positive emotions, personal strengths, and social connections that we build by engaging intensely with the world around us” (45). Foldit, on the other hand, with its complex, three-dimensional protein-folding puzzles, is quick to produce what positive psychologists call flow: focused engagement with a challenge during which external considerations fall away. I’d much rather “Solve Puzzles for Science” than “Play and feed hungry people,” at least when “play” feels suspiciously like taking the GRE.
On a final note, I should observe that Foldit falls neatly into line with ongoing trends in scientific visualization, as science and engineering have themselves moved increasingly toward the nanoscale. Historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison and new media scholar Colin Milburn have independently identified this paradigm shift away from depiction toward fabrication, to frontiers where the formerly distinct boundaries between recording and producing have been breached. Digital games like Foldit thus take part in this transition from optical photorealism to nonoptical or haptic visualization and fabrication (seeing-doing), which suggests that someday games may be better suited to the practice of science than conventional, noninteractive images.
I leave you with these timeless words of Devo, which have been pattering through my head since I started this post (modified just slightly… for Science):
When a problem comes along
You must fold it
Before the cream sits out too long
You must fold it
When something’s going wrong
You must fold it
Now fold it
Shape it up
Try to detect it
It’s not too late
To fold it
Fold it good!
Try it yourself: fold.it/portal/
Contributing scholar Alenda Chang is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include film, new media, science, and literature, and her dissertation work address the topic of environment and ecology in virtual worlds and other digital media. CGP presents another contribution on Foldit and “games for good,” which continues the discussion on “democracy” and games started at last week’s Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s session. See also Chang’s response to Jesper Juul’s A Casual Revolution in her blog post “Casual Dames” on her blog Growing Games.