In 2008 at the University of Washington, research scientists had been trying for 15 years to figure out the exact structure of a very complicated AIDS-like virus. Apparently mapping virus proteins is crucial to creating effective drug treatments. If scientists know the exact structure of a virus, they can create drugs that bind to it perfectly and keep it from replicating. Pretty cool. But these tiny, tiny proteins are notoriously hard to map. Faced with a dead end, the scientists at UW did something bold. They created a collaborative online game portal called FOLDIT and looked outside for help. In 2008 the online portal was launched so that puzzle enthusiasts and game geeks could work together using 3D modeling to try to map the structure of the virus that had eluded the scientists. As a test, the UW scientists planned to keep the FOLDIT portal active for three weeks and then check it to see if anyone had come close to an answer. A group of game players solved the fifteen-year-old problem in less than ten days.
According to this article published in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, most of the players on the winning team had “little or no background in biochemistry.” But before we give too much credit to the gamers, recognize the genius and humility of the researchers who developed the FOLDIT portal. They had the vision to call on outsiders to help, and their hunch was right.
I think there are two lessons here: 1) Play really is a super-power and 2) Looking outside the world you’re in, can provide valuable perspective.
The importance and value of collaborative play has long been recognized outside of the toy box in which many want to confine it. Play can solve big problems.