Serious Games and Educational Games, are oxymoron’s to many gamers, educationalists and parents, but maybe not for much longer after the University of Washington’s announcement about how gamers had helped researchers solve a decade old complex scientific problem.
Using an online game called FoldIt, gamers took just three weeks to accurately map the structure of a retrovirus proteases enzyme. These enzymes play a critical role in how the AIDS virus grows and spreads and understanding them is important to developing anti-AIDS drugs. Foldit is also being used to looking into the p53 tumour suppressor protein that occurs in almost half of all cancers and the amyloid-beta peptide proteins, clumps of which are thought to be a major part of Alzheimer’s disease.
Foldit gaming software was created by the University of Washington’s Centre for Game Science and Department of Computer Science and Engineering with support from the US government Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Microsoft and Adobe. Foldit players start out on introductory games to learn how to folding proteins (the basis of the game). Dr Seth Cooper of UW and Foldit’s co-creator said, ‘People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at. Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week’s paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before’.
The impact on K-12 education? Computer games in education provoke strong reactions from parents, teachers and scientists. For example Baroness Susan Greenfield, the former Head of the Royal Institution of Great Britain and the Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College Oxford, has claimed ‘social websites harm children’s brains’, that games ‘infantilise the brain’ and are causing youth obesity by changing how the brain works. With statements like these in major national newspapers, it’s no wonder so many parents and educators think online games are incompatible with education. Ironically the same newspaper had previously covered Greenfield’s spruiking the benefits of MindFit, a computer game for older people (it was licensed by Mindweavers a company of which Greenfield was previously a director). The real impact (educationally speaking), is that this breakthrough, shows is just how far the debate about the use of games in education has come in the last few years. It reminds me of Neil Armstrong when he said, as he stepped onto the moon in 1969, ‘One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind’. 42 years later to me it seems an appropriate sentiment to ascribe to the scientific breakthroughs Foldit’s players.