The play is the thing

This article first appeared in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) on 13/07/2012 page 42

As Tottenham smouldered in August last year, there was a lot of handwringing over the part that newtechnology played in corrupting the young. But while the rioters commanded the headlines an international community of online gamers was busy solving a puzzle that had kept scientists baffled for a decade.

The Mason-Pfizer Monkey Virus is an analogue of the AIDS virus. Researchers needed to know how the virus protein molecules were  folded. After ten years of puzzling – and failing – a team of molecular biologists reframed the question as an online game. Two weeks later they had the answer that had eluded them for so long.

Now you and your students can play “Foldit”. There are plenty more proteins to be folded and you can play either alone or in a team. It’s a competition – but like the Olympics of old the true reward is in taking part. The real winners are science, thepursuit of knowledge, and anyone whose life might be saved when a vaccine finally rolls off the production line.

The game was developed by a team of computer scientists at the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science in collaboration with the Department of Biochemistry to harness the spacial processing power of the human brain. In time they hope to teach computers how we do it.  But what’s important here is that gamers think differently from scientists.

Science is a discipline. The classic scientific method where problem leads to hypothesis, experimentation, observation and conclusion, suggests that there is a direct route between where we are and the truth – as long as we stick to the rules. But with the game, researchers had the free use of the spacial processing power of over 60,000 human brains, and access to a way of thinking that wasn’t their forte. Traditional scientists, trained to follow the rules were working hand in hand with gamers who take pride in breaking them.

John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas described the five traits of the gamer in the Harvard Business Review. They are bottom-line orientated; understand the power of diversity; thrive on change; see learning as fun; and explore radical alternatives and innovative strategies. If there is a well known way to solve a problem the gamer mentality is to find a better one.

Of course butchering a few Orks to enter the “realm of the shadows” in pursuit of a “deathcharger” may not have a direct link to KS3 physics but ifwe’re going to get more kids into science we have to recognise the value in the way they think.  Gamers learn constantly. If a child doesn’t read as much as we would like but plays a lot of games we need to recognise thattheir thinking is probably merely different, rather than flawed.


There a lots of games out there which will teach you about science but a growing number, like Foldit, involve the player in genuine scientific discovery.

  • The EteRNA RNA discovery game
  • Moonzoo – Help map the surface of the moon.
  • Nature-count crowd-sources information from garden observers.