AIDS and gamers

Could it be possible that our parents were not entirely right when they told us that video games were pointless and did nothing more than turn our brain to mush? According to an exciting new development in the field of molecular biology, the answer to that question just might be “yes.”

A most unusual article was published last Sunday in the journal of Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. The article detailed the accomplishments of a devoted group of people who finally solved the molecular structure of a monomeric protease enzyme, “a cutting agent in the complex molecular tailoring of retroviruses, a family that includes HIV.” The truly unique thing about the article is that it was co-signed by both scientists and computer gamers.

Using a computer program called “Foldit,” computer gamers used existing information and two-dimensional data to reconstruct an enzyme that is an integral part of the structure of a virus similar to AIDS. Using this program as a tool, gamers cracked a molecular code that had been stonewalling scientists for years. The program itself was created by the University of Washington in 2008. It was designed as a “fun-for-purpose” video game where players team up against one another and compete to see who can accurately build chains of amino acids the fastest. The rules of the program make it so that the models must correspond to actual, biological structures, and the gamers create these patterns using a set of online tools provided within the framework of Foldit. Much to the surprise of their scientific colleagues, it took the gamers only three weeks to construct an accurate model for that particular enzyme.

This discovery marks a significant step forward in the continuing struggle to understand and combat the AIDS virus. According to the study, the gamers’ accomplishment “provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs,” and it is believed to be the first time that computer gamers have come up with the solution to a scientific dilemma.

This achievement also marks an important evolution in the relationship between scientists and computer gamers. In a press release following the announcement of the publication, Firas Khatib, a member of the University of Washington’s biochemistry lab, had these glowing words of praise for gamers everywhere: In a press release recorded by the writer of the AFP article following the announcement of the publication, Firas Khatib, a member of the University of Washington’s biochemistry lab, had these glowing words of praise for gamers everywhere: “The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”

Seth Cooper, one of the minds behind Foldit, summarized the recent events in his own words: Seth Cooper, one of the minds behind Foldit, also summarized the recent events in his own words: “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.”

I agree with the opinions of both Mr. Khatib and Mr. Cooper. Video games aren’t all bad. Games like Foldit are less like “games” and more like innovative tools created for the betterment of mankind. The more technology evolves, the greater resource we have at our fingertips just asking to be put to use. Besides, video games aren’t all about running and gunning. One could argue that video games aided the development of virtual simulators like the ones used by Air Force pilots to practice flying, and scientific studies in the past have already suggested a possible link between playing video games and the development of superior hand-eye coordination. The latter is especially applicable to the field of surgery, where potential surgeons can have the opportunity to practice their skills on a virtual patient without fear of risking another person’s life.

I’ve played my fair share of video games, and it’s nice to see this form of entertainment get some good press for once. Sure, video games aren’t perfect, and maybe games that don’t include running, gunning and gratuitous violence are a slim minority, but that’s another topic of debate for another day. What the men and women behind this discovery have done is a great thing. Not only have they helped science as a whole move one step closer to possibly finding a cure for AIDS, but they have also made a gigantic leap toward solidifying a working relationship between science and video games. Looking at the success of this group of people may inspire other scientific endeavors that have reached a dead end to turn to other avenues that they had previously dismissed. Who knows? Maybe another pairing of science and gaming like this will be the key to finding a cure for cancer or some other equally incredible achievement.

I want to say “congratulations” to the men and women behind this latest scientific discovery, and I hope that similar amazing developments will follow very soon after. And to those of you out there logging onto “Halo” or “Call of Duty” for your nightly shooting practice, why don’t you put that controller down and give something like “Foldit” a try? Who knows, maybe you’ll be the one behind the next big breakthrough.

Spencer Grimes is a fourth-year English major. He can be reached at