Science is taking over video games. Well, maybe not just yet, but there is definitely something going on. A slew of recent releases have attempted to harness to collective brain power of the gamer movement in order to further their scientific pursuits, and while their efforts are a bit mixed, a few are standouts in the crowd. Best of all, they are both free.
NASA’s Moonbase Alpha
One popular venture is Moonbase Alpha, a game produced by NASA’s Learning Technologies, a division that specializes in bringing education to life for NASA and its supporters. The game was developed in an attempt to prove that gaming could be combined with science in order to create buzz and interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, education. So how’s the game?
The game play is standard to any 3-D first person shooter. Without the shooting, of course. While that would be enough for most shooter enthusiasts to save their hard drive the effort, this game is different. The goal is to play a scenario where a series of asteroids has damaged a life support system, and your goal, obviously, is to repair the life support system. The game highlights several technologies in use by NASA, like the moon rovers and remotely piloted vehicles, and some that are apparently in development in support of manned missions on the moon.
The graphics are on par with any other game using the Unreal 3 engine, so don’t start playing this one with the idea of being blown away by stunning graphics. Gameplay is slow, to simulate jumping around on the lunar surface, which adds to the realism, and really that is the key selling point for this game. Multiplayer is exciting, as strangers gather together to work towards a common goal, an element that feels far more constructive than the usual deathmatch. The action comes in 20 minute blocks, and really leaves you wanting more. Hopefully will follow the lead of other government games, like America’s Army, and expand the scenarios.
Follow this link for Moonbase Alpha’s download page.
How do you harness the power of thousands of gamers in order to best supercomputer wielding biochemists? Develop a platform that turns protein design and prediction into a game that will delight even casual gamers.
The idea is simple, yet incredibly complex. Proteins, like the ones in your cells, do all sorts of things, from determining how your body will react to sugar to telling a cell how to treat a drug introduced to it. In order for scientists to determine how these things will work, as in trying to create a new drug, they have to know the shape of the protein. While proteins are just a line of amino acids, the way that they fold determines how it work. But that is the problem: How does the protein fold?
A computer can figure it out on its own, but the process is ridiculously complex, and complexity means more computing power. The idea was originally to use spare computing cycles from home computers, an idea brought to life using a program called Rosetta@Home, a cloud computer program that harnesses home computer processes to increase the amount of computing power available for the program. The program runs into a problem, though, it has issues with changing course radically with the proteins, so that when trying to predict the structure if it runs into a major conflict, the software gets stuck. That’s where you come in.
In a casual gamer style platform, Foldit allows a human player fold proteins for points. The graphics are not wonderful, but the friendly competition keeps players going. And it is addicting. The idea that your protein could win a contest is usually enough for most to keep playing, but add in that you may unlock the secret to the next new drug or an explosives detector, and now you have a recipe for hooking a player for life. Graphics aren’t everything though, look at games like the ones found on Facebook, and the simple, cheesy graphics are nothing when you can play in a safe, friendly community, and that is where Foldit shines.
You can find Foldit here.
I have no dreams of being a microbiologist, a chemist or biochemist, but I do love games and science. Combine the two, and it just seems to fit. While many of us would like to win the next Nobel Prize, I’ll settle for just getting the high score on one puzzle. Who knows, we might cure AIDS along the way.