Online gamers have helped researchers to establish the structure of an enzyme related to HIV/AIDS, demonstrating the potential of recruiting everyday people to help unlock riddles that are typically the province of Ph.D.s.

Players used an online game called Foldit that allows users to build three dimensional models of what a protein key to AIDS developing might look like. The cumulative efforts of people playing Foldit produced models that were accurate and promising enough for researchers to translate into scientifically verifiable representations of the enzyme's structure.

Gamers Create Models of the Enzyme

It was a breakthrough for scientists who had struggled fruitlessly to create a model capable of describing the enzyme. But it was also a triumph for the burgeoning field of citizen science, in particular a subfield known as game science. Scientists at the University of Washington's Center for Game Science created Foldit, operating under the hypothesis that the correct tools can transform people from amateurs into experts.

There were a number of games previously done that tried to address human computation in some sense, but what we're trying to do is really push it to scientific discovery, said Zoran Popovi?, a professor of Computer Science at the University of Washington and the director of the Center for Game Science.

Popovi? noted that although people playing Foldit did not have the same breadth of knowledge as trained biochemists, Foldit users often evinced greater spatial reasoning skills. That meant that people who played the game long enough to understand the parametersof what is and is not possible were able to formulate elegant, complex and scientifically viable structures.

A PhD in biochemisty doesn't self-select for that type of spatial reasoning, Popovi? said. You can actually get people who have never heard of biochemistry, never knew they would be interested let alone have spatial reasoning ability, to contribute meaningfully.

The concept of citizen science is not a new one. Lucy Fortson, an associate professor of physics at the University of Minnesota and Project Manager for Citizen Science Alliance, said that scientists running the astronomical observatory at Harvard had long enlisted amateurs for the tedious work of organizing information on spectra of stars. But in recent years, the Internet has allowed scientists to draft the public in helping to organize a deluge of data on subjects from astronomy to biological science.

Computers: Fast, But Still Not Nuance-Capable

While computers are excellent at performing mathematical operations quickly, they cannot match humans when it comes to discerning a pattern in massive amounts of data, Forston explained.

You need to be able to tease out the tiger stripes from the shadow in the jungle, otherwise you're dead, Forston said. So our human eyes are very adept and quick at recognizing patterns.

That has led to projects like Galaxy Zoo, an initiative in which users helped to identify the shape and color of millions of galaxies observed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Even the most amateurish feature could observe differences between spiral galaxies, where stars are still forming, and elliptical galaxies, where star formation has ended. The project has so far produced 24 peer reviewed publications based just on that sorting process, Forston said.

Not all citizen science uses a game-based approach. Forston said she tends to avoid relying on games because the inherent competitiveness can deter potential users.

There's a whole host of studies showing that you can impede motivation of the common user by putting a gamelike structure in place, Forston said. There's no point for me to participate, because I don't think ill ever have enough time to be as good as Bob.

That self-selection process played out for Foldit users, with between one and 20 percent of people becoming interested enough to continue playing after they tried it out, Popovi? said. But others were drawn to the competitive challenge, which after all was part of the point. The more driven people were to master the game, the more they learned.

How can you both involve the populations towards a particular problem and through that involvement enable them to become really well informed and clever and innovative? Popovi? said, describing the basic premise of game science. If you can do that, there is no problem in the world that can't be solved.