AIDS researchers have spent ten years trying to map a protein enzyme of the AIDS virus. A complete view of the protein will give researchers a window into how the virus works and thus enable them to create better, more effective drugs. A group from the University of Washington turned the problem into a competitive game and handed it over to gamers.
The gamers solved the puzzle and mapped the protein in three short weeks. (link is a pdf of the article) A program called Foldit was used to turn the problem into a game. Seth Cooper, co-creator of Foldit, was quoted saying:
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.
There are two things that I find interesting about this discovery. One, that humans brains succeeded where computer modeling failed. Two, that a group of gamers spent three weeks solving something ten years of toil by traditional methods could not untangle. Computer modeling is very useful and important, but sometimes we forget that humans are very smart and capable of more than we know. We also forget that sometimes a different approach and a different viewpoint are all we need to find our way out of the woods. That and a mob of dedicated people working to solve the problem with us.
–Jane, prefers first person RPGs