Science and the “Nobel” art of gaming

March 31st, 2011 by

microtask_biotic_gamesAs regular readers will know, here at Microtask we love a bit of science fun. Back in November we blogged about Foldit, a freely-available online protein-folding game. Foldit players contribute directly to scientific discovery: the more proteins they fold, the closer scientists get to curing diseases like Alzheimer’s and AIDS.

Refusing to be out-innovated by mere protein professors, geneticists at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford University have created EteRNA. EteRNA is another folding game: this time the goal is to help create the first large-scale library of synthetic RNA designs (which sounds like you’re studying for a PhD as opposed to playing a puzzle game).

It doesn’t take a genius to see that gamification is getting a totally new crowd interested in scientific experiments. So what’s the next step? Instead of creating games that model biological processes, what if scientists started “playing” with actual molecules?

Microscopic evolution, real life fun
That’s exactly what Stanford researcher Ingmar Riedel-Kruse and his lab group have done. The Biotic Games project enables players to interact directly with microorganisms. The game’s “hardware” is a simple console which is hooked up to a lab slide. When players push buttons on the console the microorganisms on the slide react. These reactions are displayed onscreen in real-time via a microscopic camera.

So far, the team has come up with several varieties of protozoa-based fun, such as:
PAC Mecium allows players to move paramecia around by controlling electrical fields. Biotic Pinball lets you influence the direction of microorganisms by injecting chemicals onto the lab slide. Polymer Race has players betting on the fastest reactions among millions of copies of an organism’s DNA.

Like many great science projects, Biotic Games was created out of intellectual curiosity (the “let’s see what happens if we try this” impulse) rather than for any specific application. Riedel-Kruse hopes that:

“By playing games involving biology on a scale too small to see with the naked eye, people will realize how amazing these processes are… We are talking about microbiology with these games, very primitive life forms.”

At this point, the actual game-play of Biotic Games is still very basic (plus players need an inconveniently expensive biotechnology lab to run the system). However, with a bit of development (and maybe a decent game designer), there’s definitely potential for crowdsourced “biotic tasks”.

Console campaigners
Medicine and science are not the only fields that could benefit from gamified crowdsourcing. Back in 2008 Steve Puma showcased Macrocosm, the “climate change simulation game that lets you save the earth”. Puma’s concept was a game that allowed users and companies to work together to solve complex climate change and social problems.

Developers behind the recently released game Fate of the World would definitely agree that climate change is ideal gamification material. A single-player strategy game, Fate of The World encourages players to explore serious political and social issues. Unlike many “message-focused” platforms, Fate of the World is a game you actually want to play: complex, immersive and visually appealing.

Both Biotic Games and Fate of the World have huge crowdsourcing potential, especially if they borrow a few ideas from each other. Fate of the World could develop ways to interact with real world processes – allowing the crowd to suggest concrete solutions to global problems. Biotic Games could adopt more high-spec, mainstream game-play in order to attract a bigger crowd to medical research tasks.

It’s still very early days for scientific crowdsourced gamification. But the beauty of science is that a sudden, critical discovery is always possible. Who knows, one day there really might be a Nobel prize winning crowd.


    Someday, there will really be a Nobel prize! There’s more to expect on gaming. Seth Priebatsch is one of those who believe in it! At TEDxBoston, Seth Priebatsch looks at the next layer in progress: the “game layer,” a pervasive net of behavior-steering game dynamics that will reshape education and commerce. Know more about his insights about the game layer,

  • J. Huopainen

    Scientific American Dec 2010 issue’s feature “10 World Changing Ideas” had two short articles “The Game of Life” and “Human Number Crunchers” that probably are of interest to you.