Fierce's top 5 feats in life sciences 'gamification'

In less than 10 minutes, I aligned gene sequences from humans and several other species, spotted malaria-causing parasites in microscopy images, and took wild guesses about which types of cancer were linked with specific genes. It was all done without advanced training in genetics or pathology.

Welcome to the "gamification" of life sciences research, where all you need is an Internet-connected device and a few minutes to play a part in advancing science. It's a growing trend within the open innovation and crowdsourcing movements sweeping the biopharma world. From mind-numbingly simple to technically challenging, the games offer a way to tap the masses in order to solve large and small problems. What an idea: Use addictive gaming environments to conquer Big Data challenges in genomics, test computer-driven methods of diagnosing infectious disease and determine cancer prognoses.

Early successes with games such as Foldit and Phylo have inspired their creators to expand the uses of the games, hoping to address bigger and bigger research needs. While there are limits to what nonscientists can accomplish to improve our understanding of biology with games, gamers have been pushing those limits in recent years with some astonishing accomplishments. Foldit players, for instance, teamed up in the protein-folding puzzle game to solve the structure of a retrovirus enzyme, a serious advance in AIDS research.   

And it's still only the beginning of the gaming trend in life sciences research, which arguably took off with the 2008 release of Foldit. Computer scientists and bioinformatics experts have followed with a growing menu of other games over the past few years--including newer titles such as Cell Slider and Dizeez--seeking to capture a slice of the 150 billion hours per year humans devote to playing games.

Jérôme Waldispühl--Courtesy of McGill

Serious academics appear to have pioneered the gaming trend, including University of Washington biochemistry professor David Baker, a co-creator of Foldit, and Phylo co-inventor Jérôme Waldispühl, head of the computational structural biology group at McGill University. They are limited by their budgets and a need to create games that prioritize solving actual problems over sheer entertainment--but they want their games to be enjoyable. On top of doing their part to advance science, players want to have fun and tend to abandon dull games.    

"The interface I believe should be completely casual and not at all scientific because you have [to make it] accessible to the maximum number of people," Waldispühl told FierceBiotech IT in an interview.

The following report includes most of the best-known life sciences games around, with some descriptions of the playing experiences for several of the games. They are ranked based on the quality of the gaming experience and their scientific accomplishments. More games are in the works, but all the games below are available for playing online. Shoot me a note if you believe there are any important games missing here.

-- Ryan McBride (email | Twitter)

Fierce's top 5 feats in life sciences 'gamification'