Playing games to solve science problems

Knowing when to fold
[Via Naturally Selected]

In a very roundabout fashion, I found myself credited as an author in a letter published by Nature yesterday. Alongside the named authors – Seth Cooper, Firas Khatib, Adrien Treuille, Janos Barbero, Jeehyung Lee, Michael Beenen, Andrew Leaver-Fay, David Baker, Zoran Popović – was me. Well, the paper didn’t quite refer to me by name, but under the more general heading of Foldit players.

Like many others, I have been playing an online game called Foldit for the past few months. The basic goal of the game is to produce accurate protein structure models. Confirmed, but incorrectly folded protein structures are presented to players to work on, and through a friendly and colourful interface, players are able to manipulate the protein and produce an accurate protein structure model.

In their letter to Nature, Cooper et al. suggested that,

top ranked Foldit players excel at solving challenging structure refinement problems in which substantial backbone rearrangements are necessary to achieve the burial of hydrophobic residues.


Foldit is a fun game and has demonstrated that human skills can be much ore helpful soling some hard computational problems than brute force computing. It uses really intriguing gaming principles and harnesses the ability of humans to work in social groups to reach some pretty amazing answers.

It is produced by researchers at the University of Washington. Now it is a paper in Nature. I particularly like the last line in the abstract:

The integration of human visual problem-solving and strategy development capabilities with traditional computational algorithms through interactive multiplayer games is a powerful new approach to solving computationally-limited scientific problems.

Plus I love that the Foldit players got last authorship, which is usually reserved for the head of the lab where the work was done. And the Supplementary INformation has some of the most unusual bits of data, including a Table with the relevant players and detailed testimonials from the players explaining how they did the experiments, … uhh,

played the game.