By Kelsie

I spent all this week writing my thesis…ok so I spent some time writing my thesis and the rest of the time was spent playing video games or as I like to think of it, “research”! Hear me out!

Have you ever played a video game? Probably. The traditional view of a video game is one that is played on a console like Mario Bros on Nintendo or Spyro on Playstation, or an arcade game like space invaders but today games come in a variety of formats and by far the most popular are mobile and online games. These small addictive puzzles (Angry Birds, candy crush and Farmville (shudder) to name a few) are feeding our procrastination prone and addictive natures. (I, of course, have fallen into the candy crush trap. In fact I only deleted it last year because my phone ran out of space for Facebook!).

Damn you candy crush!
Damn you candy crush!

These are the games that stop us getting things done (unless the things are reaching the lollipop mountain by defeating the honey monster). But what if these types of games could be harnessed for good? For instance could we use candy crush to solve scientific problems? The short answer to this question is: Yes!

In fact there is an online game called Fraxinus which works in a very similar way to candy crush except instead of matching candy you are matching coloured leaves! It is a facebook game that was developed to fight the rise of ash dieback disease in elm trees that was a major problem in the UK. You basically have to align different leaf patterns with  a real reference DNA sequence. By doing so scientists can use the data to identify different genetic variants related to resistance in the tree genes or susceptibility in the fungal disease. It’s a little like crowdfunding data, in that you get a whole range of people to assist with what would otherwise be a very time consuming task and would take one person years to do!

In fraxinus you move along the different leaf/DNA strands until you match up as closely as possible with the reference strand at the top.
In fraxinus you move along the different leaf/DNA strands until they match up as closely as possible with the reference strand at the top.

Another game that is making use of humanities ability to connect images and identify patterns is Eyewire. The game challenges players to identify and connect branches of a neuron from one side of a cube to the other. You’re basically creating a 3D map of all the neurons in the brain! You just go through the different slices and click on all the connected squiggles (getting real technical here!). The game ranks you based on speed and accuracy and allows you to compare your results with other neuron mappers.

This screen shot shows the basic layout for the game. You click on areas in the grey blob screen on the right and they form into the 3D neuron on the left. Green = correct.
This screen shot (adapted from discover magazine blog) shows the basic layout for the game. You click on areas in the grey blob screen on the right and they form into the 3D neuron on the left. Green = correct.

Using a slightly different set of humanities special skills is Quantum Moves. This one has been in the news quite a bit lately, in particule one level called Bring Home Water. In this game physicists are relying on our knack for dynamic movement and problem solving skills to find novel ways to move an atom using a beam of light. All in aid of building a quantum computer…no really. The game has led to solutions that are described as “…better than any that a computer comes up with” according to Jacob Sheran, the Danish physicist who led the game development team. In fact they found that people were able to find new ways to move the beam and solve problems faster than the computer algorithm alone. When the human solutions were used as the starting point for the algorithm, it worked 30% faster!

bring home water
Quantum Moves, the Bring home water level (image from the science magazine article) . You basically drag the circle across to the other curve full of “water” then drag that “water” back to the shaded rectangle. Definitely not as easy as it sounds!

If you want to have a go at a few of these games I highly recommend doing so! I realise that we probably don’t need more ways to procrastinate but if we are going to do it anyway why not procrastinate for science!  I’ve mentioned a few of the ones I’ve played here but for an expanded list, and further detail about the benefits these games have resulted in so far, check out the article in the Guardian called: Online gamers solving sciences biggest problems. 

As a PhD student/researcher I find it inspiring to think about all the different ways our work can be communicated and interacted with.  One day there might be an online game that shows kids how to make new rocks in the lab or how different amounts of ice at the poles affects sea levels (it is possible these games already exist and if so I challenge you to find them and post them in the comments…so I can do more…research). I for one would love to see more of these types of games out in the world, mostly so that the next time somebody tells you to stop playing games and “Get back to work” or “You should be writing!” you can just tell them you are matching candy to cure cancer. Who knows one day that might be true.