Emerging Technologies and Edtech June 19, 2014

Country of Origin: USA
Languages: English
Developer:  University of Washington Center for Game Science
Publisher: UW Center for Game Science
Year Published: In Beta since May 2008
Platforms: Windows/Mac/Linux
Barriers to Entry:  Requires moderately high performance computer.  UI can be difficult and inaccessible. Puzzles are extremely difficult.
Genre: Puzzle
Age range: High school +
Subjects: Science, Math

The makers of Foldit believe that human intuition, especially in large numbers, can outperform a brute force computing approach. Foldit is a game designed to bring together large numbers of players as a crowd-sourced resource to solve computationally intractable problems (protein folding). The game engages large numbers of players with a complex scoring system, an online community that includes both individual and group comparative scoring, and a highly usable and beautiful user interface.

The basic interface is similar to solving a Rubik’s Cube using 3D modeling software. The player rotates and tumbles a protein, moving its component parts in an attempt to optimize the protein’s arrangement against a set of scoring rules (where those rules correspond to targets established by science for protein behaviors). The player is also provided with fun and useful tools like springs and magnets to move the highly complex protein molecules in interesting ways. 

While playing Foldit quickly exposes the player to advanced bio-chemistry much too complex for laypeople to understand, the game does create an appreciation for the complexity of protein folding and the basic composition of protein molecules. There’s also a sense of excitement that comes from helping to create cutting-edge research as a player. Foldit’s puzzles, even when considered independently of the science, are complex and pretty well scaffolded, creating many possibilities to examine the player’s approaches in complex problem solving.

Application of this game spans bioinformatics, molecular biology, and medicine. Fold-It will have long-term effect on understanding and creating complex protein structures for real world structures. Current puzzles are based on commonly taught proteins, so even young kids can associate to that. The puzzles are laid out in interesting and intuitive way with a scoring system to motivate young kids to adults.