Thursday, July 16, 2015

A New Way of Thinking Science: Video Games

A New Way of Thinking Science: Video Games

A new computer game, Foldit, recently helped scientists unravel the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme, helping scientists get closer to a possible cure (CNN, 2011). Unlocking the structure of the enzyme was a quest going for a decade in the scientific community until Foldit finally put a stop to it. The game may help find cures for other protein-related diseases as well such as cancer and Alzheimers by helping scientists understand the shape and function of proteins. 

Proteins, composed of any combination of 20 amino acids, are key components to cell functions. DNA in the cell determines the type and sequence of the protein, which carries out the vital functions in each cell such as muscle movement, digestion, and defense against infections. Creating and joining amino acids, however, are not enough. To carry out their task, proteins must fold into a complex three-dimensional structure ( And, this is pretty much what the video game builds on. Foldit, as the name suggests, is a protein-folding game. After a 20-minute instruction session in the beginning of the game, each player can become a Foldit scientist and start wiggling, pulling and stretching proteins in 3D to give them meanings and functions.  As the first law of thermodynamics suggests, energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. The same goes for protein folding. In a process that requires energy, Foldit players get awarded when they make proteins that use the least amount of energy. And, this is how, in only three weeks, Foldit players modeled the structure of the retroviral protease and contributed to the design of antiretroviral drug development to cure AIDS.

What does this development mean for science communication?

First of all, it confirms that the field of journalism and communication need to recruit more scientists in the digital media era. In my previous blog on Social Media Week, I agreed with Dan Gillmor, the author of Mediactive, that we need more computer science majors in the field. In today’s evolving digital environment, we are seeing more effective communication tools that are increasingly being designed by computer scientists. Video-game examples support the view that we need to keep encouraging more communicators to work with scientists and vice versa.  

Second, it illustrates that videogames are encouraging a new way of thinking. By playing video games, we can now think more productively not just about science, but also about policy, art, and education as Ian Bogost (the author of How to do things with videogames) suggests. In science, videogames do something that textbooks cannot always accomplish, and that is teaching the scientific method. Instead of memorizing science, we now get to practice the  scientific method by asking questions and seeking answers. The new way of thinking applies to policy issues as well. In Fate of the World, players jump through the scientific, political, and economic hoops to mitigate the impacts of global warming. Check out the YouTube trailer for Fate of the World!

Third, digital era is not a threat to journalism unlike those who argue that the web will kill the newspaper. If anything, it increases the democratization process by incorporating everyone’s input. No matter how sophisticated technology might be, the human brain is still the driving mechanism for computers. Videogames, in that sense, simply provide the platform where humans’ puzzle solving abilities can find answers to unknown scientific problems. Isn’t this what journalism is about in the end: asking questions and investigating answers? 

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