Foldit – Solving Puzzles for Science

Foldit’s innovative approach solves the age old issue that science needs more people. Foldit has gamified protein folding so that anyone, not just scientists, can cure diseases.

Foldit is an online game that leverages the power of the crowd to solve protein folding puzzles. Understanding protein structure is an important step in curing diseases. Untangling the mystery of how proteins fold, helps scientists design new proteins to fight diseases. As you can see in the image below, a protein can fold in many different ways, which makes this a difficult puzzle even for computers. Therefore, Foldit relies on humans’ pattern recognition skills to find the best solutions. Unsure if Foldit can add value? Consider this – in 2011, the Foldit community solved the structure for an AIDS-like virus found in monkeys in three weeks. Researchers had been working on this problem for 13 years.



The game works through virtualization. First, players are given a puzzle, like the image above. They then must fold the protein as small as possible using fun, non-scientific tools like “wiggle”, “shake”, and “rubber bands”. Each tool performs a different function that changes the shape of the protein. Every shape gets a score, but only the most compact structures will receive the highest of accolades. Researchers use the top scoring solutions to create new proteins to cure diseases, specifically HIV/AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.

Foldit does a nice job of seamlessly moving a player from level to level so that it is difficult to stop organically. Further, the site boasts all sorts of rankings to keep players engaged and competitive. The addictiveness and playability of the game is how Foldit creates value. To be honest, I do not know much about proteins, but when I play this game, I don’t have to. I am simply solving a puzzle without any biochemistry jargon. Hence, good game developers are the key to making this model work.  Players are also encouraged to participate in forums and join groups to build the community to further strengthen the network effects. Although, Foldit does not have a monetized business model, capturing value for a good cause, like Foldit, is easy – competition and persuasion are the driving force.

Currently, the biggest challenge Foldit faces is balancing the highly computational nature of the complexities of a protein folding game while making it available to everyone. Since the game is constantly being updated and running many analyses in the background to score proteins, loading Foldit on portable devices is difficult. However, Foldit recognizes this shortcoming and is working on a beta version for streaming.

The future of gamifying science is strong. The total time spent on playing online games is 3 billion hours a week! If game developers can continue to create fun and addictive games, then science can covertly begin to take market share. Foldit already has over 57,000 players, and schools are beginning to jump aboard as well. More plays means more data for researchers to pull from, which leads to more robust solutions and a better chance of eradicating diseases.

Give it a try!


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Student comments on Foldit – Solving Puzzles for Science

  1. What I like about Foldit, is that it does not require its users to have more than basic competency in geometry and visualization, but Foldit can derive massive value from the results. I believe that a potential issue with many crowdsourcing platforms is that a majority of the value created is done so by a few key members who are experts in the topic. Here however anyone can become useful and start creating value right away. Therefore I imagine worries such as user stickiness and compensation are not nearly as important because there is very little key user risk. Thanks for the post!

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