ICTScience - The play is the thing

An online game lets pupils tackle a puzzle that stumped scientists

Simon Parsons

As Tottenham smouldered last August, there was a lot of hand-wringing over the part that new technology plays in corrupting youth. 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 and, after 10 years of puzzling, 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 pupils can play Foldit (http:fold.it). There are plenty more proteins to be folded and you can play either alone or in a team. It is a competition, but like the Olympics of old, the true reward is in taking part. The real winners are science, the pursuit 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 is 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 more than 60,000 human brains, and access to an alternative way of thinking. Scientists, trained to follow the rules, were working 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. Gamers learn constantly. If we are going to get more children into science, we have to recognise the value in the way they think. If a child doesn't read as much as we would like but plays a lot of games, we need to recognise that their thinking is probably different, rather than flawed.

Simon Parsons is a children's media producer. He is writing a book about how the British learned to fear children


A growing number of games, such as Foldit, involve the player in real scientific discovery. Try games on TES Resources that get pupils playing and learning at the same time.


Can playing games really improve learning? Join the discussion on the TES forum.

Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.ukresources043.

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Simon Parsons

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