Foldit is a great free puzzle game that actually helps scientific research when you play it! The whole game is based on learning and exploring the different ways that proteins can ‘fold’, and the results can help research into cures and treatments for a whole host of medial problems.
A long time ago, I took part in a program called SETI @ Home, which was sponsored and implemented by the folks at the Search For Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute.
The basic concept was this: The SETI program used many different devices, mostly radio telescopes if I recall properly, to try and detect a patterned signal in distant space, which would possibly indicate intelligent life.
On our planet there are tons of radio signals all over the place, each one with a distinct and logical pattern. Those signals go out into space from Earth and travel an inestimable distance over the years. Scientists at SETI reasoned, then, that if there was intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy or the universe that it would be sending out similarly logical patterns of radio signals.
Therefore, trying to pick up those signals seemed like a good idea. The problem was, as I understand it, that there was simply too much data coming in to be able to handle on the computers they had at the time. So, in a flash of brilliance, they sent out a free program to let anyone at home help them by devoting their home computer and its downtime to scanning the raw data gathered by the radio-scopes. This project was wildly popular and rather successful in that it did manage to increase the amount of data that was processed on a regular basis. As far as I know, however, no aliens have been found yet.
Today, the concept of helping scientists from your home has not vanished! There’s a free game out called Foldit Beta that allows you as a player and an individual to help scientists with something much more ‘down to earth’ right in your home. Essentially, by playing this game, you can help scientists figure out how different proteins can fold and what the best ways are. This research can, they say, eventually lead to major advances in treatment, therapy, and maybe even cures for things like HIV, AIDS, Cancer and Alzheimer’s disease! To my way of thinking, this is a win win situation. I get to play a fun game for free, and help to advance medical science all at once. Not only that, but the major difference with this program over SETI @ Home, for example, is that we can see actual direct results here on Earth, rather than hoping to get lucky in searching less than 2% of the available sky for life.
Foldit Beta is also, as you can imagine, a multiplayer online game. Your scores can be compared to other players’ scores on the internet automatically so you can see just how much smarter you are at puzzles than your friends. The game itself is pretty simple, at heart, but can have levels of deep complexity. Any good puzzle game will offer this kind of sloping challenge and Foldit Beta has done a good job of offering a fun gaming experience while still maintaining it’s scientific integrity.
The game is available in Beta for Windows, Mac, and Linux. You’ll need to sign up for a free account and then download the install package, which weighs in at a modest 24.9 megs for Windows. The install process is very quick and easy and once you start it you’ll wait for a moment or three as it updates with the latest info from the central servers. This is normal and expected with multiplayer online games, so it’s not a problem for most of us and it takes much less time than updating something like World Of Warcraft, which can take literally days. I was updated and playing the game in less than five minutes total, including the initial download and install. There are options to play offline, if you want, as well. If you do so, the next time you connect to the internet through the game interface your data will be uploaded, including your scores.
The first few puzzles are really easy and are accompanied by a decent tutorial system that allows you to progress at your own pace. This is to be expected in the best games, online or not. The idea is to solve each puzzle in as few moves as possible, as near as I can tell. I played it for quite a while and I kept getting congratulatory messages and moving on to harder and harder puzzles so I suppose I was doing it properly. Once you get past the first few puzzles and have learned the interface it can get terribly complex. I would recommend this game to anyone who has a love for puzzles, science or ‘the newest thing’. The multiplayer aspect consists only of comparing scores to other people online but I didn’t really notice that much since I was thoroughly engrossed in the game itself. I don’t generally love puzzles myself but I found this game compelling and very difficult to put down. I hope you enjoy it too. Until next time, my friends!
Get Foldit Beta here (Windows, Mac, Linux).