Learning Gamification from Fold-It

Like to fold a protein? Or, like to learn about best practice in serious game design from a game about folding proteins? Read on about my recent experience with Fold-It.

A posting by Chris Collins reminded me of the serious science game Fold-It. He cited a recent Science Digest article that reported on success of mapping the structure of the retroviral protease enzyme.

“After scientists repeatedly failed to piece together the structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus, they called in the Foldit players. The scientists challenged the gamers to produce an accurate model of the enzyme. They did it in only three weeks. This class of enzymes, called retroviral proteases, has a critical role in how the AIDS virus matures and proliferates. Intensive research is under way to try to find anti-AIDS drugs that can block these enzymes, but efforts were hampered by not knowing exactly what the retroviral protease molecule looks like. Remarkably, the gamers generated models good enough for the researchers to refine and, within a few days, determine the enzyme’s structure. Equally amazing, surfaces on the molecule stood out as likely targets for drugs to de-active the enzyme.”

It has been three years since I played with Fold-It, so for the last few days I have been deep into the game. OMG!!! I was very impressed on how this serious game has evolved over the last few years.

I worked through the 32 introductory puzzles, which slowly and gently (with minimal science) explained complex UI controls and their effects on the 3D protein structures.

11 of 32 puzzle exercises to introducing Fold-IT basics

11 of 32 puzzle exercises to introducing Fold-IT basics

After working through some of these intro puzzles, Fold-It asks if you would like to solve a puzzle of a ‘real’ protein molecule. I chose Quest to the SOLVED Monkey Virus Protein. So I started to Shake and Wiggle away on it. Here are a screen shot of the protein, along with UI controls.

Fold-It Screen Layout - Click for Full Res Image

Note the following about the Fold-It screen layout:

  • In the center… detail structural features of the protein molecule, which can be panned, rotated, and zoomed, along with poked and pulled.
  • Progress status on the top center. I am ranked 63 (of 1456) with a score of 8863.087. Yea! Good progress for a newbie.
  • Detailed ranking list in the top right showing in real-time where I stand. I can play this puzzle as a soloist or as a group.
  • Chat panel in the lower right allows you to commiserate with other puzzle solving colleagues. These social mechanics has spawn a very active community of Fold-It geeks!
  • Tool panel in the lower left. I was impressed with the sophistication of the tools. Some fairly complex algorithms are driving these functions!
  • Recipe list on the center left side allows you to create action sequences (or complex LUA scripts) and share those ‘recipes’ with others.

The moral of this tale… Work through the intro puzzles, and you will learn a lot about best practices in serious game design.

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