What Trickery is This?

News story of the week: Gamers have helped decipher the structure of a monomeric protease enzyme, found in retroviruses like HIV, and it's worth noting that the scientists had been chewing their nooby PhD brains on this for about a decade.  Now consider that timeframe vs. the gamers, who managed to work it out in 3 weeks.  In addition to bragging rights, they have earned the prestige of being listed as co-authors in the findings published by the University of Washington. 

How did they inflict this pwnage? Researchers were directly asking for the help.  By playing a game called Foldit that was created in 2008, players join in competing groups to unfold chains of amino acids using in-game tools. 

Why should we be surprised?  Have you ever watched someone play DoTa, or spend hours on a long-term online strategy game?  There is a distinction between first-person shooters and strategic players, most notably that the second group runs multiple tests, performing repetitive failing tasks to learn what each game component is capable of.  They train like athletes, to maintain their skills at peak performance, usually daily. Upon the purchase of a new game, or first play online, all manipulable parts accessible to the player are meticulously tested to learn how they interact with other variables within the parameters of the given virtual space.  They master characters and have little patience to play with anyone below their caliber. The learning process and rigourous trials and training are 'fun', and prestige in games like Warcraft and Starcraft is craved by all serious contenders, hence the banning and trashing of noobs during gameplay.

There is also another segment of gamers who are viewed as less hard-core and typical of the stereotype, but who are equally devoted.  Puzzle geeks would eat up a challenge like Foldit.  Grandmothers and soccer moms who enjoy a stimulating round of Kongregate's finest, are just as likely to hold the key to unravelling what essesntially looks like complicated balls of yarn.

As many of us know too well, you can love to play scrabble or boggle, but make heinous typos in a crucial document in the context of your 9-5 (Ok, maybe you've got OCD and you don't - leave Spellcheck at home and give it a fair try).  You can stare at an equation until your eye twitches and miss the simplest connection to the right answer - especially if you've been looking at this particular equation for the better part of your professional career.  The clear lesson in this case is that altering the methodology and inviting outsiders in to 'play', is reinventing and light-speeding progress in areas where we need it most.  Here's to seeing where else we can put their eager minds to work.

Some further reading HERE.

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