A new scientific study weaves the classic yarn of human vs. machine – and this time, the human wins. Or more specifically, the gamer wins. In the study, published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology over the weekend, a group of competing gamers were able to decipher the structure of an important enzyme within an AIDS-like virus. The resulting structure is so crucial, it may be a key to developing more effecting drugs to fight viruses.
The study used a game called Foldit, which has players unfold chains of amino acids using a set of in-game tools. Within three weeks, one of the teams of gamers had solved the enzyme's mystery — a puzzle that had eluded computers.
This week, I'm part of a group that's beta testing our upcoming iOS game, Mystery Ball. Mystery Ball is easy to pick up: you play as FRED, a ball with mysterious amnesia and several phobias, who has been deposited onto a piece of land floating in the sky. The goal is to use doodads (springs, magnets and the like) to set up the play area, veer around baddies FRED calls frenemies (or unintentionally encounter them, if you're a newbie like me) and make it to the exit. Oh, and to not fall off the edge into the yawning abyss.
Here's where it gets interesting: the developer, David Howe, mentioned in a meeting last week that he had seen some players come up with solutions he didn't intend for each level, using doodads and their own ingenuity. In beta testing Mystery Ball, I find myself going back to completed levels just to get to an area I couldn't seem to access before, or to see if I can improve my baddy-fakeout skills.
As the environments get more complicated spatially, and the doodads and frenemies grow in number, the possible solutions increase.
I went through a few years of pretty intense PC gaming as a kid, and my best friend loved them, too. (Mostly adventure puzzle games like Myst, Riven, The Journeyman Project – you know, old school.) We'd sometimes play the games together and I was always amazed at how her brain worked differently from mine, solving the puzzles that stumped me, or tripping up at things that I'd considered obvious.
Foldit's creators credit our fancy spatial reasoning skills and ingenuity for making us more adept at solving things like the enzyme puzzle. This blog post points out that programming a computer to deal with a vast number of solutions instead of using the pattern-recognizing software we keep in our heads would be silly.
All Singularity jokes aside, this is exactly what makes games like Foldit and Mystery Ball fantastic. I can set up my environment for a wonderful, elegant solution – which I always do – and you could come up with a solution I would never think of that's just as effective. It's human creativity born of a structured environment, which is, to me, what gaming's all about.