Gaming for Science

April 13, 2012
Gaming and 3D visualization technologies offer promise in educational venues as well as for unlocking complex scientific puzzles. Add crowd sourcing to the mix and the increased number puzzle solvers takes distributed computing to a new level.

Technology is a pervasive thread that runs through many of the innovative projects discussed here at TEDMED 2012 in Washington, D.C. this week. Much as architects now use building information modeling (BIM) to envision how buildings and spaces will work, scientists and educators are using virtualization technologies to solve 3D conceptual problems.

Among these is a project that takes the power of play to a whole new level. Seth Cooper, creative director of the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington (Seattle) is the co-creator and primary developer of Foldit, a protein folding computer game. Using distributed computing and sophisticated 3-D imaging, Cooper and his team built a virtual community of people playing the game. They know they’re contributing to science, but they’re having fun, too.

The goal of the game is to allow gamers to help predict protein structure and design new proteins. They do not have to understand the science of protein folding or how this process helps to understand diseases such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, or Alzheimer’s.

Cooper and his team post a protein structure that gamers download to their computer where they can manipulate it and move it around. The goal is to fold it in the most compact way. As they play—and fold—they are scored in real time. The person with the best folds for a protein gets the highest score. Gamers can play as individuals or as teams. (Join the Rosetta@home protein folding, design, and docking game at

Another innovative development uses gaming and web technologies to apply 3-D medical animation and interactive simulation for educational uses. A collaborative effort between the New York University School of Medicine’s Division of Educational Informatics and the Anatomy Faculty and BioDigital Systems nears completion of the BioDigital Human virtual anatomy models. Access to the 3D BioDigital Human models is free at

What big problems might we solve by sharing the puzzle with others? Among colleagues? For fun? Many points to ponder.

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