Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ask not what your games can do for you...

The most depressing notion behind games is the 'timesink' - the extent to which these activities are repetitive, irrelevant, and ultimately wasteful. As a term it is unusually evocative: while a 'pastime' helps the time to pass, a time sink sucks it away, like some wretched Baba Yaga stealing your breath as you sleep. You don't just help time pass, you kill it. Played a nice game of checkers recently? You can't get that back. You're one more nice game of checkers closer to dead.

"Still not as bad as Warcraft"

With such a low poplar opinion of gaming and games, it's fascinating to see those who view these thousand of game-hours spent as something more than a colossal wank. Cast in a different light, this playtime posits an incredible potential, a powerful, invisible current that need only be harnessed. It is this perspective that lead to games like University of Washington's Foldit, which is a charming little way to waste a couple hours, and while you're at it, help cure cancer.

The thought process behind the game is a fairly straightforward one. It begins with a research problem: Proteins of all types can be imagined, offering any number of properties, but due to the massive amount of variation possible, cataloging every possible protein arrangement is an insurmountable task: One that is speculated, in a disquietingly Clarkian way, to require every computer on Earth a century of uninterrupted processing to hash out.

But here's the rub: It's thought that we pitiful hoo-mons, with our pathetic 'feelings' and 'emotions', might do a better job. It's one of those post-industrial tasks that for whatever reason the robots don't have us licked. Amazon's Mechanical Turk operates under the same premise: by breaking a task down into iterable parts to be processed, any number of time-consuming jobs become possible. Communal labour haven't been this promising since Shakespeare got those million monkeys on a million typewriters to produce his oft-overlooked masterwork "Od bhjHd lnjNDnjdbiAD: A tragedy in sixty-three parts".

So for Foldit, the task of crafting optimal protein-formations is left to the player: hydrophilic and hydrophobic side-chains must be bent away from each other, while amino acid coils can be dragged together to form hydrogen bonds. After running a gauntlet of tutorial environments, you are free to begin challenging others at devising new formations, and posting your performances online.


In this case, the play environment takes its cues from modern game-spaces based on collaboration, comparison and mutual play. If anything is surprising, it's how easily this type of forum has been chained to the yoke of Pure Progress. While we've been told that there are personal benefits to gaming, ranging from the mental keening from games like Brain Age, the role of kinetic games like Wii Bowling in nursing homes, and even things like doctors sharpening their surgery skills through gaming-simulation, these are arguments for something intrinsic to gameplay, as opposed to something applied exterally.

Put simply, Foldit is a move away from an inward scrutiny of how games affect us, towards something potentially groundbreaking: How we can affect the world through games. This needn't be something sinister or ominous, an "Ender's Game" blurring of fact and fiction. It can be as simple as twiddling a peptide bond to get a new high score. So much time in games is spent in consideration: thinking, toying with options, evaluating moves. Who says we can't choose what we think about? A twist here, a pull there, and voila: Something new.

Me and my fellow million monkeys, we a-gonna change the world.

- Rook


  1. Huge fan of bottom-up processes. Which all this protein folding business seems to emphasize using.
    I've never even heard about Mechanical Turk. Cool.

  2. Absolutely. A difficulty with designing games along a top-down rubric is that in many cases there aren't successful models to co-opt, or the examples that do exist are either insufficient or dated. Following a top-down model, you'd be most interested in amassing a bulk of volunteers willing to work on these proteins in a controlled environment (which is exactly what they did before they designed the game).

    On the one hand, it works, and there's a precedent for it. But with Foldit, they've increased their volunteership to something upwards of 60,000. For people hurting for manpower, it's a dream come true.