Yesterday I was introduced to a new concept in crowdsourcing – using games to solve biology problems.
If you are unfamiliar with the concept of crowdsourcing, it’s a model for production and problem solving, distributed on a large-scale to a “crowd.” In other words, work is distributed to a mass of people, and those people get bites of it done. This can be used to solve problems, or just get “stuff done.”
Crowdfunding is a cousin to the idea, what with KickStarter and others who help fund projects via a collective of people. Each person contributes in general a small piece of the solution, but together the “crowd” levies a formidable impact.
Enter stage right an idea developed by Carnegie Mellon and Standford University call EteRNA. It’s a free game developed by scientists to explore the basis of designing RNA, something that is apparently considered the “dark matter of biology.”
Personally, I like puzzles and games and find that it helps my memory, the flow of my work day and even helps give me a break when I need to walk away from work or a stressful situation. The challenge of solving a puzzle is both rewarding and in many cases, meditative for me. However I also get bored once I’ve mastered them. So the idea of working with real patterns that might actually help advance science? Well that got my attention!
The concept of the EteRNA game is based on learning how to “fold” RNA. Apparently, there are ways that RNA will fold and ways it will not. However, it’s my understanding that when they gave the problems to computers to do, they weren’t having any luck in getting the answers they needed. However, when they took the concept to a game, just in the short while it’s been around, players of the game have solved many problems.
It’s not the easiest game up front, let me just tell you that. I have no background in biology, nor do I understand some of the concepts they are presenting with the RNA stuff. However, I have an eye for pattern. Get me into something and though I might not be able to explain it to you, I will find a pattern. And that’s the part I bet they’re counting on.
CMU has set the game up well to carefully step you through some tutorial basics to help you learn the ropes. I recommend taking your time and following them. And then to just explore and be patient. I’ve been through several puzzles and each one is quite different, and yet based on a similar set of rules.
So check it out. If you’re a teacher, definitely consider showing this to your students. I heard that the #1 “folder” for this game is 12 years old. And who knows, if you’re geeky like me, it just might be one of the more fascinating things you’ve done with a spare 5 minutes here or there.
I’ll be there as AberrantCrochet of course! Seeing if I can get close to the top. 😉
So what do you think? Have you tried the game? Do you think an artist’s eye might have an edge?