2011 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge

Interactive Games

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Science  03 Feb 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6068, pp. 532-533
DOI: 10.1126/science.335.6068.532

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1st Place


Seth Cooper, David Baker, Zoran Popović, Firas Khatib, Jeff Flatten

Center for Game Science, University of Washington

Call it origami for nerds. Foldit players rack up points for twisting, bending, and canoodling chains of amino acids to make realistic proteins. And, unlike rewards for blasting aliens or eating ghosts in Space Invaders or Pac-Man, the points in Foldit count toward science. Players are “spending their time not tending to an imaginary farm,” says Seth Cooper of the University of Washington, Seattle, a member of the team that developed the game. “They're doing something with real implications.”

Foldit takes advantage of the human mind's savvy for solving spatial problems, Cooper says. Puzzles start with a snaking arrangement of amino acids, identical to the sequence of an actual protein. Players then have to fold that sequence into a complex 3D structure that fits the laws of chemistry. The closer players get to folding a realistic-looking molecule, the higher they score. Tiny warning blobs, for instance, pop up when water-insoluble amino acid side chains point to the outside of a protein. To make those blobs go away, competitors need to tuck the side chains into the molecule's interior.

But Foldit isn't just a fun exercise for puzzle fiends, Cooper says. It's also a great platform for turning at-home gamers into researchers. The efforts of Foldit's 200,000-plus players have helped researchers understand how a number of important proteins loop and scrunch inside cells. Players, for instance, recently resolved the 3D conformation of a protein critical to the functioning of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus. Cooper and his colleagues published their results in 2011 in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. The team also added a new feature: Gamers can play cellular architect and build proteins never before seen in nature. Scientists will then be able to draw on these player designs to construct brand-new molecules in the lab.

“I love the way Foldit crowd-sources the power of the people to solve real science problems, a feat that makes it a supremely useful citizen science project,” says challenge judge Tierney Thys. And although the science of protein folding may be complicated, Foldit is accessible to a wide range of gamers, says challenge judge Thomas Wagner. And, he adds, “it was fun to play.”

People's Choice

Velu the Welder

Muralitharan Vengadasalam, Ganesh Venkat, Vignesh Palanimuthu, Fabian Herrera, Ashok Maharaja, Tata Consultancy Services

Learning to weld takes patience and nimble fingers. Some time spent on a Wii gaming console might not hurt, either. In this interactive challenge, the brainchild of developers at Tata Consultancy Services in Chennai, India, players step into a virtual apprentice workshop. They follow in the footsteps of Velu, a young Indian man getting a crash course in welding.

Although they've adapted their instructional game for the PC, Muralitharan Vengadasalam and colleagues suggest that Velu the Welder is best played on a Wii. The console's motion-sensing controller makes players feel like they're holding a real welding torch. First, Velu's stand-ins get a lesson in gas welding, completing basic welding moves on pieces of scrap metal. After that, they graduate to arc welding, joining metal pieces together to make a frame. The aim is to provide marketable skills to school dropouts in India. It's certainly a lot more productive than swinging a club in Wii golf.

Honorable Mention

Meta!Blast 3D Interactive Application for Cell and Metabolic Biology. Level 1: The Cell

W. Schneller, P. J. Campell, M. Stenerson, D. Bassham, E. S. Wurtele

Iowa State University

Meta!Blast 3D may be the closest science education comes to Halo. While the game aims to teach novices about the cell, it's rooted, like the favorite Xbox shoot 'em up, in action. Gamers play a lab dishwasher who discovers that her entire study group—undergraduate adviser, grad students, and all—have been sucked into a photosynthetic cell. So it's time to pilot a microscopic craft around chloroplasts to the rescue. If that sounds exciting, wait until you have to dodge the ranging proteosomes that try to gobble your intracellular spaceship whole.

Adventure aside, Meta!Blast helps students “to understand that the cell is a very complex and beautiful world,” says game designer Eve Wurtele, a biologist at Iowa State University in Ames. Case in point: your ship is powered by ATP. If you use too much of the cellular fuel, you sputter to a stop.

Honorable Mention

Powers of Minus Ten

Laura Lynn Gonzalez

Green-Eye Visualization

Instead of playing Angry Birds on their iPads, high school–age students can use their hand-held devices to take a trip into the hand itself. In Powers of Minus Ten, developed by Laura Lynn Gonzalez of Green-Eye Visualization, players take a scavenger hunt through the skin on the human hand and into individual cells—just by flicking their fingers.

Gonzalez's game, also available on the PC, is loosely based on the famous 1968 short film Powers of Ten, which traveled from outer space, then deep into the human body. When players zip past the skin on the hand and enter a cell, they see animated chromosomes and proteins buzzing like Las Vegas street signs. Kids can tap on these cellular structures to learn more about them. The app is constantly evolving: Players will soon be able to delve inside the mitochondria and even zoom down to the atomic level, Gonzalez says.

Too often at this magnification, “people get lost,” Gonzalez says. She hopes her interactive tour will help students learn their way around a cell. So, no angry birds but a lot of happy teachers.

Honorable Mention


Jeremy Friedberg

Spongelab Interactive

Contributors: Jeremy Friedberg (Game designer/Producer), Nicole Husain (Content, Writing), Ian Wood (Programming), Genevieve Brydson (Project Management), Wensi Sheng (3D graphics, Compositing/Post-production), Lorraine Trecroce (3D graphics, Project Management), Kariane St-Denis (French Translation), David Rowe (Post-production, Programming, Testing), Ruby Pajares (UI Design), Arij Al Chawaf (Content, Writing), Shaun Rana (Graphics), and Nancy Reilly (Testing)

Build-a-Body lets eighth- to 12th-graders play transplant surgeon—or, perhaps, Dr. Frankenstein. Gamers piece together the human body's systems by dragging and dropping organs into place. After plopping the small intestine into the abdomen, for example, you then score more points by figuring out how it joins to the large intestine looping around: “You're building [the body] from the ground up here,” says game designer Jeremy Friedberg of Spongelab Interactive.

The game's a colorful introduction to the human body. But it doesn't stop once students have completed the systems. Build-a-Body also generates an evolving list of “case studies.” Popup windows highlight the symptoms of various illnesses such as celiac disease, and players, now diagnostic physicians, decide what systems those diseases target.

Friedberg adds that Build-a-Body is just one piece of Spongelab's portfolio. The gaming group has also launched Build-a-Fish, Build-a-Worm, and Build-a-Frog. The quartet of games gives students the opportunity to compare differences and similarities between humans and their hopping, wriggling, or swimming kin.

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