Crowdsourcing Cracks AIDS Mystery, What's Next?

Online game players recently helped solve a tough problem with analysis of AIDS proteins. InnoCentive uses same approach to solve challenges for businesses.
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To paraphrase Shakespeare, it's beginning to seem as if all the world's a game and us just players in it. Gamification techniques, where playful techniques are applied to other purposes, are being applied to everything from fighting AIDS to packaging beer.

Last week, players of the online game Foldit were credited with helping discover an enzyme involved in the reproduction of AIDS, opening up the potential for development of new drugs to fight the disease. Scientists had been pursuing the creation of this enzyme for years but had previously been unable to find the right protein structure through other techniques, such as computer simulations. Proteins can be folded into many different shapes, and the Foldit game encourages players to try combinations at random, guided by intuition and special reasoning that computers can't yet match. A paper on the findings was selected for advance online publication by the scientific journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

Developed by the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington in collaboration with the university's Department of Biochemistry, Foldit is supported by the school, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Microsoft, and Adobe.

While Foldit is explicitly advertised as a game, InnoCentive organizes somewhat similar contests advertised as "challenges." Whether you call it a game or not, the challenge of creating a contest people will want to participate in is the same, David Ritter, chief technology officer of InnoCentive, said in an interview.

"You have to formulate the problem into a specific form with very clear rules. Players have to know what the rules are and what they are going to get if they succeed with the challenge--when you kill the three-headed dragon, you know what you're going to win," Ritter said.

[ Crowdsourcing can work for companies of all sizes. Check out Crowdsourcing For SMBs On A Budget to learn more. ]

InnoCentive also runs a number of scientifically-oriented challenges, partly owing to its heritage as a company founded by former employees of the pharmaceuticals company Eli Lilly. For example, Life Technologies, the manufacturer of a DNA sequencing machine that has been miniaturized to the size of a laser printer, has been working with InnoCentive on a series of seven $1 million challenges for improvements in the device's speed and accuracy.

InnoCentive also hosts more business-oriented challenges--one current example is a $5,000 prize for suggesting a "unique way to package and differentiate a new craft (microbrew) beer." InnoCentive promotes challenges related to business and finance through a partnership with The Economist magazine and has a similar partnership with the journal Nature for scientific challenges. Most sponsors of these contests are companies, although InnoCentive also hosts some on behalf of foundations, such as those pursuing a cure for a disease or a better solution for economic ills.

Other InnoCentive challenges have included helping NASA gather ideas related to astronaut health and performance and soliciting ideas for the response to last year's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Foldit breakthrough prompted O'Reilly Media CEO Tim O'Reilly to observe in a Google+ post that this was an example of how gamification can motivate people through the thrill of discovery, without extrinsic rewards such as cash prizes being offered (what he called "the shallow end of gamification").

"Yes, 'winning' matters, but it's winning at hard things--intrinsic motivation--that really matters," O'Reilly wrote. "The appeal of Foldit is that the problems it presents in spatial reasoning are challenging puzzles that force people to exercise their abilities. The fact that those abilities are put to work in a meaningful cause makes it even sweeter."

Ritter said InnoCentive finds offering cash prizes does help capture people's attention, but by itself it's not enough. Participants also need "rich feedback about their contributions," he said. "If you're able to tap a variety of those things and engage on multiple levels, you will be more successful. What keeps them coming back may be a different set of motivations than what got them started. At the beginning they may see the prize money and say, 'Sure, I'd like to have an extra $10,000.' But then it may change to, 'Now, I really want to solve this problem.' If you understand that, you're more likely to catch them on day one and keep them coming back."

That's not so different from how things work in a fantasy role playing game, Ritter said. "When you get to the next level of the dungeon, you want to get rewarded along the way."

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