Gaming Wins Big at National Science Foundation's Visualization Challenge

Protein-folding might not sound like an especially exhilarating way to spend a weekend, but puzzle mavens and scientific researchers alike rallied behind the game’s innovative take on crowd-sourcing public ingenuity to tackle scientific conundrums. The effort has long since paid off, but this year the game adds another feather to its cap: taking top honors at the ninth annual International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, with a first place win in the Interactive Games category.

The Challenge’s goal is a novel one. The journal Science and the National Science Foundation have teamed up to reward and promote especially novel ways of sharing data and scientific knowledge with the general public. This was the first year that included a specific Interactive Games category; other categories offer accolades for noteworthy photography, videos, and informational posters and graphics. The winners were chosen by an outside panel of experts, but there was also public voting on the National Science Foundation’s website for the People’s Choice award. All of the games have large educational components, and many were designed for students or use in classrooms.

In Foldit, players earn points by arranging protein structures into feasible, realistic shapes. The shapes players design help researchers understand how proteins fold, which is critical to identifying proteins in cells. Although most of protein folding research is computer automated, machines aren’t as efficient as humans when it comes to pattern recognition and puzzle-solving. The developers take advantage of this fact; players are both solving structures and helping to teach computers to be better folders.

There were plenty of other games in the running. The People’s Choice award went to a quirky little title called Velu the Welder. It’s designed to be played with a Nintendo Wii controller, using motion controls to teach basic welding lessons. As they improve, players can move to arc welding or some basic building. It was developed by Tata Consultancy Services in India, to provide training and help school dropouts develop marketable skills.

Another noteworthy entry was Meta!Blast 3D. It’s an action game, a bit reminiscent of The Magic School Bus, without Ms. Frizzle. A lab’s personnel have become trapped inside of a photosynthetic cell, and it’s up to you to rescue them. That involves navigating through the cell, learning about its different features, and surviving attacks from nefarious proteins like ubiquitin (the “kiss of death” protein). This has yet to occur in any of the labs I’ve worked in, but I find it nice to be prepared.

You can find the full list of games in this month’s issue of Science, or at their website. And be sure to check out the rest of the entries; there’s some cool stuff in there.

Julia Seaman is a graduate student, working on a Ph.D in Pharmacogenomics. When she isn’t futzing with the mass spectrometer or harvesting cells, you can find her cruising the space lanes in The Old Republic.

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