Gamification – WTF or FTW?

9 12 2011

You may recently have seen this article or the many articles like it, on how gamers solved a puzzle regarding the shape of an AIDS-related enzyme (above) that had stumped scientists for years. The enzyme is believed to be part of the transmission process of the AIDS virus (or a similar animal virus) – knowing the shape of the enzyme means scientists can work on how to block it, hence this may be an important part of the puzzle for finding an AIDS cure or vaccine.

It took the gamers less than ten days to solve the puzzle.

So how did this happen? The scientists knew what made up the protein, but they didn’t know how the pieces fitted together and what shape they formed, an important factor in the functioning of proteins. The scientists, we can assume, were equally motivated to solve the problem, highly educated in the ways of atoms and molecules. The scientists also had computers that could turn the puzzle over and over – and even the computers couldn’t solve the problem. How did gamers do what scientists and computers couldn’t?

The answer is basic human nature. What the scientists did was make the puzzle into a game. They knew it had to be fun. They attached a points-based reward system. They set up the game so that users could collaborate or build on each others’ work. And then they set it free!

The gamers, motivated by the challenge, the fun and the reward system, worked together and competed against one another. And of course, the human brain is better at solving spatial problems than computers.

So gaming – stereotypically seen as non-productive and somewhat addictive technology – turns out to have application in the “real” world. And of course a multi-syllabic word has been invented to describe this turning of boring or non-entertaining problems into games: gamification.

Gamification is increasingly finding more and more application in the real world. Wikipedia suggests the following list of uses, some productive, some less so:

– Employee training programs
– Education (repetition is good for learning, but currently many educational games are BORING!)
– Project management
– Financial services websites
– Healthcare and wellness

– scientific problems
– engineering problems

– loyalty programs
– online shopping experiences

Membership and recruiting
– attracting new memberships
– religious
– cult or terror organisations
– I believe the US Armed Forces already use games as a recruiting tool

Gamification has many potential uses, through harnessing our innate natures to seek entertainment and continue behaviours that result in reward. The only proviso is that the program / puzzle / game needs to be set up properly to achieve the aim. If the scientists hadn’t already known the molecules that made up the enzyme, and programmed in the ways that the molecules interacted with each other, into the program, the gamers would not have been able to come up with the meaningful result.

So scientists of the world can breathe a sigh of relief. Gamers are not taking over your jobs, they are just the latest tool in your tool belt. Your knowledge is still needed to ask the questions.

And without the right questions, you can’t get the right answer.