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18 Jan 2014

Online Gamers Solve Science’s Big Problems

If you thought online gaming was nothing but a waste of time, perhaps it's time to change your perspective. An increasing number of gamers are helping scientists unravel the secrets of the universe, thanks to a new wave of games that merge science and fun in surprising and useful ways. Whether it's an unsolved medical puzzle or an astronomical challenge, some of the biggest problems in science are being solved in virtual environments by people with no scientific training.
Scientists started to recognise the potential of online gaming in 2011, when an online puzzle game called Foldit helped to resolve the structure of an enzyme that causes an Aids-like disease in monkeys. Even though scientists from the University of Washington had been baffled by this problem for 13 years, a group of untrained online gamers managed to break the code in three short weeks. Since this amazing feat, a wide range of games have been released on the Internet by scientists hoping to solve other big problems.

An online game called Planet Hunters has also enjoyed success, with gamers already discovering 40 planets missed by professional astronomers since its release in 2012. Planet Hunters is offered through the Zooniverse website, an online portal of citizen-science projects across the areas of space, climate, humanities, nature, and biology. Zooniverse started back in 2007 with the game Galaxy Zoo, and has since expanded "to produce projects that use the efforts and ability of volunteers to help scientists and researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them."

While gaming and science might seem like odd bedfellows, in reality, they share a number of similarities. While the disciplines of science initially require specialised knowledge to formulate questions and recognise problems, the process of solving problems using a given set of rules shares a number of similarities with the act of gaming. For the most part, these games are based around pattern recognition, a process requiring no formal training which benefits greatly from a large and active collective of participants.

According to Erinma Ochu, a neuroscientist and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow at the University of Manchester, "Our brains are geared up to recognise patterns, and we do it better than computers... 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."

According to Zoran Popovic, director of the Centre for Game Science at the University of Washington and co-creator of Foldit, the scientific success of online gaming also raises questions about the limitations of academic specialisation: "No matter what academic process we go through, we end up whittling down a huge population of middle schoolers interested in science to some small percentage that actually survive the PhD process and end up doing science. 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."

With crowdsourcing now such a popular way to generate money online, scientists are increasingly realising the potential for online communities to also generate data and solve problems. While the link between science and gaming is still viewed in some circles as a mere novelty, in reality it is simply the most efficient way to solve existing problems with the best resources available - people at play.