Players on the gaming site FoldIt solve in just three weeks an HIV puzzle that frustrated scientists for a…

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 19 2011 6:40 PM

Score One for Gamification

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That’s one small step for HIV research and one giant leap for innovation. A group of gamers on a site called FoldIt have helped solve a long-standing scientific puzzle: the structure of an enzyme found in an HIV-related monkey virus.  “Scientists have struggled with the problem for a decade, but the gamers helped crack it in just three weeks,” says Jacob Aron on the New Scientist.

FoldIt bills itself as a “revolutionary scientific discovery game that allows players to contribute to biochemistry by folding and designing proteins.” The game launched in 2008 and is supported by the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Game Science. After the results were published the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, FoldIt bragged, “This is the first instance we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem and we want to thank you all for your amazing work on this and everything else.” The site has been buckling under the heavy load of post-HIV announcement traffic.

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Earlier this year, Heather Chaplin expressed skepticism about gamification, the idea that we can harness all that energy spent on Gears of War 3 for good. Chaplin wrote that in Reality Is Broken, gamification enthusiast Jane McGonigal “is not advocating any kind of real change, as she purports, but rather a change in perception: She wants to add a gamelike layer to the world to simulate these feelings of satisfaction, which indeed people want.” The FoldIt success—which could be game-changing, if you’ll pardon the pun, or could be just another step in that frustrating march against HIV—hits that sweet spot that Chaplin worried gamification might miss: This is “real change” in that the “feelings of satisfaction” are not simulated, but real. This type of gamification can work with a very specific population of experts.

Read more on the New Scientist.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies.