On the Ground Reporter Game _Darfur

Courtesy of on the ground Reporter

Gamers. They seem to have their own world. They have their own language – a pc may bunny hop to avoid a train – and they have their own code of ethics. But could the gaming culture influence the way we understand humanitarian news? Could games actually help us change the world?

One top gamer thinks so. Jane McGonigal has more accolades behind her name than the Kardashians have reality television shows. The fair-skinned, blue-eyed Ph.D is the Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future, based in Palo Alto, Calif.
On her website McGonigal says her top goal is to see a game developer win a Nobel Peace Prize. Really? There are gamers for peace? You bet.

Gamers Changing the World

McGonigal and a cluster of game developers have devoted a lot of their skills and energy in creating games that focus on humanitarian problems but also soliciting solutions. These gamers believe that by using the collective nature of game culture that we can solve some of the worlds most complex and intricate humanitarian problems.

McGonigal, who makes alternative reality games, partners with large international development organizations such as World Bank to create games that look at humanitarian crisis such as poverty and world hunger to create positive and lasting impacts.

Though we haven’t played any of McGonigal’s games we’re intrigued at the concept of using something a lot of parents say is a “time waster,” as a way to change the world.

Gamers Solving AIDS Enigma
The idea that games could provide solutions to humanitarian problems was thrust fully into the mainstream in a study published in 2011. That’s when video gamers took only 10 days to figure out an enzyme problem that had stumped AIDS experts for years.

The story is amazing.

Years ago researchers at the University of Washington built a computer program that sought to build the three-dimensional shapes of proteins, a key component in trying to find cures to debilitating diseases such as HIV, malaria and cancer. Called rosetta@home, the researchers asked people to download the program on their home computer and allow it to run when the computers were idle. The program would run, unassisted, trying out millions of possible ways to fold the protein.

People downloaded the program, but they also complained that the computer was “doing it wrong.”
Researchers say people called them with suggestions on how the protein shapes could be twisted and changed into different structures, folds that the computer program hadn’t done. People used their innate spatial reasoning skills to predict the protein folds, folds the computer program had missed.

University of Washington researchers, listening to the people, created a “game,” where people could shape the proteins while in competition with each other. The game, called Foldit, is a free online game which asks them to shape, wiggle or tug at a protein structure to force it to twist into its most natural state. More than 50,000 people are playing the online game.

Using Foldit, online gamers, most of them not scientists, were able to create a protein model of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) that mirrored structures observed by scientists. This protein plays a pivotal role in the multiplication of the HIV virus. Knowing its structure can lead to virus-blocking drugs that could potentially stop the enzyme from replicating. About the discovery Foldit co-founder Seth Cooper 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.

Play and Change the World
Here are some links to games you can play that focus on world issues. Who knows? You just may get the high score and change the world!

Foldit – Solve Puzzles for Science
EVOKE
Games for Change – lists a whole host of games for social change (we like the On the Ground Reporter game set in Darfur!)

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