It sounds like the plot from science fiction: Play a game, solve a puzzle, save the human race. We’ve seen this plot time and time again with films like The Last Starfighter, books like Orson Scott Card‘s Ender’s Game, and television shows like Stargate Universe. It is the ultimate fantasy wherein the average kid with a high aptitude for pattern recognition or a love of game mechanics can change the course of history and be the hero. But is it really just a fantasy? Could playing a game like Foldit really make a difference in the world?

The short answer is: Yes. In actuality, Foldit has been used previously to solve an HIV enzyme; the collective public did in three weeks what researchers spent over a decade trying to do. Other games in other fields of research, like astronomy and biology, have also produced results, putting the human mind to tasks that super computers aren’t quite able to fully comprehend. 

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A Problem Needing Solving

The first step in creating a world-solving video game is identifying the problem that needs to be solved. It must be something that requires a different way of thinking, something that needs a lot of brain-power, and could potentially be something that a super computer running endless simulations may never solve. Ok, so maybe it doesn’t take all of that, but those criteria have fit with previous problems solved by video game puzzles. One big, as in global, problem facing us right now is the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers all over the world are working to find a way to combat the virus, and that includes the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design, one group behind Foldit.

A researcher sits at a computer reviewing a protein design originally designed in Foldit.

A researcher sits at a computer reviewing a protein design originally created in Foldit.

What Exactly Is COVID-19 And How Can A Game Help?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 is what is known as a novel-coronavirus, originally discovered in 2019. A corona virus is a reference to the shape of the virus (which looks like it has a corona, or halo ring, when viewed under a high-powered microscope). Novel simply means it is a never-before-seen virus. The fact that it has never been seen before is where you, the gamer, comes in: by playing Foldit, players learn how proteins interact and try to come up with new combinations of elements and molecules to neutralize the virus.

Top scoring designs in the game, those that follow the ideal guidelines programmed by the researchers, are chosen to be field tested. Yes, the designs you create in Foldit might get created in a lab and tested on real (inactive, so not harmful to researchers) COVID-19 samples! The tests will show whether the design that works in theory will work in reality. If proven here, the successful proteins will then go on to additional drug testing. There is still much work to be done to go from Foldit gaming to human use, but every scientific breakthrough has to be begin somewhere!

Screenshot of a new high score of a puzzle in the game Foldit.

Screenshot of a new high score of a puzzle in the game Foldit.

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Do You Want To Play A Game?

If any of this has piqued your interest and you want to try your hand at solving a biological puzzle, head on over to to download Foldit and get started. You’ll first be tasked with going through tutorials and sample puzzles to learn the mechanics of the game before getting access to the Science Puzzles, which are the time-limited real-world puzzles. To learn more about the current COVID-19 end-goal and post-game process, watch the short update clip below or click over to Reddit to read through the recent AMA the Foldit team participated in. To see some sample game play or get game tips, follow Foldit on YouTube.

Will you be trying your hand at Foldit? Let us know and please feel free to share your successes with us! 

From Foldit:
Foldit is an interactive computer game and not a distributed computing project. If you would like to donate spare CPU cycles to science, please check out the Rosetta@Home project on BOINC


Originally published on March 31, 2020.



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