Tech & society

FoldIt, an example of social gaming

FullFrontal with Samantha Bee shines a light on gamification for public good, with a nod to FoldIt, University of Washington’s game for science.

Gamification is one of those off-putting words that sounds like nails on a blackboard*.

But it was front-and-center (no pun intended) on this week’s FullFrontal with Samantha Bee. And gamification — introducing gaming elements into things that aren’t games — has helped scientists solve problems related to AIDS and Alzheimer’s as well as explore new drug design.

In a segment on challenges faced by local news, Sam interviewed Canadian Gabe Zichermann. He explained that gamification makes things we should do, but don’t, more fun. And thus more likely that we’ll do them.

As an example, he gave a shout-out to FoldIt, a University of Washington crowdsourcing computer game that lets average folks contribute to scientific research:

After about 20 minutes of training, people feel like they’re playing a video game but are actually mouse-clicking in the name of medical science…

The game looks like a 21st-century version of Tetris, with multicolored geometric snakes filling the screen. A team that includes a half-dozen UW graduate and undergraduate students spent more than a year figuring out how to make the game both accurate and engaging.

Zichermann told Sam that FoldIt helped scientists solve a problem related to HIV. After 15 years of traditional science failing to find a solution, more than 40,000 people playing FoldIt produced an accurate 3D model in 10 days. Those findings appeared in the September 18, 2011 issue of Nature.

The UW project is ongoing and is available for Windows, Mac and Linux computers (not smartphones or tablets). Anyone can play, but there are also tools for educators to incorporate FoldIt into their classrooms.

Want to know more about gamification? The University of Pennyslvania has developed an online course on gamification. There’s a body of research.

Back in 2011, I expressed my view about the hype around gamification on Google+ where I shared Tim’ O’Reilly’s response to this review of Zichermann’s Gamification by Design:

In the course of but one year, “gamification”, the use of game design elements in non-game contexts, has managed to grow from a self-description used by some vendors and proponents to a placement on the Gartner hype cycle – and in the IT business, it doesn’t get much more ‘official’ than that. Yet the term still stirs hot debate. On one side, game designers and scholars despise the whole notion as an “inadvertent con” (Margaret Robertson). On the other, proponents counter that gamification already ‘delivers’ (in terms of numbers), yet is still in its infancy. Hence it would be premature to call foul on something so young, with no time to learn from failure and sort wheat from chaff. So who’s right, who’s wrong?


Watch the FullFrontal episode

Check out FoldIt

* For any youngsters reading this, blackboards were a mainstay of the 20th century classroom (and date to the 16th century). They were made of thin sheets of black or dark grey slate. You wrote on them with chalk, and if your nails scratched the board, they made a screeching sound. Eventually, blackboards would be replaced by chalkboards (green paint) and then white boards (which use colored markers).

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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