Online Gaming: a support system for HIV research?

Edition 28 December, by Benjamin B. Roberts

In 2011 an amazing breakthrough was made in HIV research. After a new problem solving game was released on the online gaming platform Foldit, players were able to unravel how the structure of an anti-AIDS protein folded. It only took them ten days to solve the problem, one that academic scientists and researchers had laid awake for more than ten years. One of the gamers responsible for the discovery was Harald Feldmann from the Netherlands, who joined the online platform in 2008 after his mother’s had been diagnosed with a type of dementia, and started searching the Internet for a possible cure. Today online gaming, which are best described as ‘puzzles’ has become instrumental in solving crucial scientific problems that scientists and computer programmers had been scratching their heads. Players of online gaming platforms are now the new collective communities that work together as a form of play in providing scientists with new ways of formulating knowledge that will help find a cure for HIV, Alzheimers, and cancer.


The main objective of a online game like Foldit is to map protein folding (hence the name “Fold it”) through a series of puzzles. The pattern-recognition and puzzles solving abilities of all its players are collectively studied and used by scientists to help understand how protein chains in HIV, Alzheimers disease, and cancer fold together. The fundamental key to curing these diseases can be discovered in how the protein chain folds and continues to grow. If how scientists understand how proteins grow, they will also be able to understand how proteins can stop growing.

3-D Movements

In 2008, Professor David Baker, a protein researcher at the University of Washington, released the online game Foldit after working together with the Center of Game Science and Department of Biochemistry at the University of Washington. Baker realized that the human brain more easily recognizes patterns than computers can, which in the last nine years has paid off. Today there are more than 57,000 Foldit players worldwide. Players manipulate a protein chain on a computer screen equipped with animated tools and are rewarded with points. According to the Foldit website, anybody from age 11-12 (sixth grade) and up can play Foldit, and requires no preliminary education in biochemistry. After players have mastered the introductory levels, they can move up to actual scientific problems and contribute to ongoing research. The game features a reward system with player scores to signal the quality of their folding, which helps motivate them to find more accurate and better protein structures.

Candy Crush

In her academic article “Digital Games and the Collaborative Construction of Knowledge” (July 2017), Rita Santoyo-Venegas argues, “Players have outstanding problem-solving abilities that have been developed and sharpened through years of playing digital games”. The Mexican researcher believes scientists and game designers that created Foldit are a good example of “what humans can accomplish with the appropriate design of the tools that will help them perform intellectual tasks. The technological artifacts that aid in epistemological activities, any activity whose main purpose is the creation of new knowledge”.

Ms. Santoyo-Venegas points out that it doesn’t make any difference whether participants play Candy Crush or Europa Universalis IV. When gamers play digital games, they are having an intellectually challenging experience. Digital games have become cognitive artifacts of the future. In today’s world they shape the modern intellectual world, and stimulate an important development in human cognitive abilities. The development of play and research would not have surprised the German scientist Albert Einstein, who in the early twentieth century is reported to have remarked, “Play was the highest form of research”.