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Gaming science

10.28.2013
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Gamification as a concept has exploded over the past few years, with an ever expanding range of applications of game technologies and philosophies.  Arguably the most interesting however is in the field of scientific research.  I wrote earlier this summer about a new online game called EyeWire, which aims to use gamification to help improve our understanding of the brain.

EyeWire, which emerged from MIT, attempts to gamify the kind of research that brain scientists are doing every day.  The problem with the lab based approach however is that they often lack the manpower to do their job effectively.  It can take around 50 hours of lab work to reconstruct a single neuron.  There are 85 billion neurons, so you can see the scale of the problem.  Hence the game based approach.

Whilst close to 100,000 people have played the game since its launch in December, there is arguably a more popular game in the same field.  Phylo is a game of logic and strategy that aims to aid genetic research, and thus far it has been played over 300,000 times.

The game, which is probably best described as a cross between Tetris and a Rubik’s cube, asks players to line up coloured squares that represent real DNA sequences.  This process allows researchers to identify and pinpoint genetic anomalies that may contribute to a range of disases, including diabetes and breast cancer.

Since the launch of the game, some 4,000 puzzles have been solved, with the genomic data from them going towards real research.  The game designers have however decided to up the ante recently by asking players to add their unique skills to the work already being done in the field by heavy duty computing.

McGill computer science professor Jérôme Waldispühl and colleagues are hoping that along with providing solutions to genomic problems, this process will also help to promote a better general understanding of scientific research.
“Playing a game helps lower the barriers that sometimes exist between scientists and the population in general,” says Waldispühl. “Since we launched Phylo, what I’ve most enjoyed are the conversations I’ve had with people who are interested in science and want to know more about the research. Our goal now is to connect thousands of scientists around the globe with hundreds of thousands of gamers.”

The developers have produced a paper documenting the results of their Phylo experiment.  Their results suggest that humans can provide an insight that cannot be entirely performed by heuristics-based algorithms.  This is primarily due to the capacity of humans to use visual intuition to explore configurations that the algorithms overlook or ignore.

With both Phylo and EyeWire gaining traction, it seems we are entering the age of gamified research.

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