Fold.it  is a fascinating application of gamification that allows people to “solve puzzles for science”.  The website provides a protein-folding game that challenges players to help solve one of the “hardest problems in biology today” – figuring out the optimal structures for folding the myriad of proteins we have in our bodies.  Apparently, even super-computers have difficulty performing this task.  So, the University of Washington Center for Game Science turned this complex problem into a fun puzzle for people to solve in the comfort of their own homes.  This is a great example of a problem-solving activity that has the potential to be highly enjoyable in and of itself, but needed the right design and delivery mechanism to engage large numbers of people.

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And the game is designed well.  Folding three-dimensional protein structures may sound like a herculean intellectual task, but by creating a game with simple rules and actions, immediate scoring and messages to inform players about the strength of each folding move, tools and resources players can acquire to enhance game-play, and progressive levels of difficulty – from dead simple to wildly complex – anyone, quite literally, can enjoy Fold.it.  And like many good gamified systems, Fold.it incorporates a healthy level of competition through leader-boards as well as contests.

Mostly, however, we’re impressed with Fold.it because it’s effective at accomplishing its objective: to obtain large amounts of data about possible protein structures without significant investment in computing power.  The more people who play, the more data are generated for research. This is a critical point, as any application of gamification should not only engage people in an activity, but do so in a way that produces the intended result.

For more about the game science behind Fold.it, watch the video of Zoran Popovic’s TED talk: http://talentsearch.ted.com/video/Zoran-Popovic-Massive-multiplay

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