Harvesting MMORPG Time


I had a dream last night of harvesting MMORPG time to save the planet. Let me explain.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) are deeply engaging millions of players, spending some 21 hours per week in a virtual world according to The Daedalus Project. The World of Warcraft alone has more than 12 million subscribers, part of an industry that exceeded revenues of $1 billion in 2008.

Consider the scale of the time investment - 12 million players averaging 21 hours per week!

MMORPG's allure is understandable. They offer an alternative experience in which one is freed from the mortal limitations of the daily grind, providing a playground for an avatar that can be crafted, and controlled by, one's imagination. The allure of these games has sparked considerable discussion about online addiction.

Interestingly, about 10% of male players and 33% of female players have had online "weddings." {See a recent article in The New York Times, "It's Love At First Kill."}

Back to the dream. Imagine you're exploring a lush virtual world as an avatar that, some believe, reflects who you really are. You (that is, your avatar) can be a bold, confident risk-taker taking on challenges and foes that would be unimaginable and unmanageable in the real world.

As you collect points and your avatar "matures" into higher and higher levels, you are doing something, unwittingly, that is amazing. You are a key player in solving one of the greatest puzzles in science - figuring out how proteins fold.

Why is it important to solve how proteins fold?


Illustration of the process of protein folding. Chymotrypsin inhibitor 2 from pdb file 1LW6.

Because it remains one of the great unsolved problems in biology. Each of our cells make proteins necessary for life, a delicate, highly complex process in which a "string" (on the left) of amino acids becomes a fully functional, "folded" protein (on the right.)

Think of it as origami on the nano scale.

Understanding this process will give us new insights into a whole host of diseases, such as Alzheimer's, in which plaques in the brain are believed to be the result of misfolded proteins.

So how could MMORPG players unwittingly solve this profound puzzle? By sheer numbers and time. Every year, research groups at MIT and beyond compete in a contest to see who can propose the best solution to a protein folding problem. A brilliant software, Foldit, was introduced recently that allows any user, scientist and non-scientist alike, to contribute to a piece of the puzzle.

A publication in Nature reported the result of some 57,000 players engaged in Foldit.

According to the paper:

People exert large amounts of problem-solving effort playing computer games. Simple image- and text-recognition tasks have been successfully 'crowd-sourced' through games1, 2, 3, but it is not clear if more complex scientific problems can be solved with human-directed computing. Protein structure prediction is one such problem: locating the biologically relevant native conformation of a protein is a formidable computational challenge given the very large size of the search space. Here we describe Foldit, a multiplayer online game that engages non-scientists in solving hard prediction problems. Foldit players interact with protein structures using direct manipulation tools and user-friendly versions of algorithms from the Rosetta structure prediction methodology4, while they compete and collaborate to optimize the computed energy.

Yes, that is impressive. Now imagine how much progress could be made with 10 or 15 million players, and not just casual players, but dedicated 20 hour per week players! This could be accomplished by embedding a code for Foldit into games such as World of Warcraft. Perhaps someday a scientist or engineer working at a company such as Blizzard will pay attention to this wild dream.

According to The Daedalus Project:

MMORPG gamers spend on average 21.0 hours per week playing the game (N = 1996), and spend on average 7.7 hours per week watching TV (N = 1996). The national average for TV watching per week is around 28, which is what the above averages add up to. In other words, this lends support to the claim that time that was spent watching TV has been displaced by MMORPG playing. Female players are on average older than male players (33.0 vs. 28.4, N male = 1587, N female = 379, p


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The only real problem I can see here is, "Does Foldit use a particularly high amount of resources"? People frequently run games their computer can only barely handle, and bundling this into the code may stress things.

Hell, I'll run it after I upgrade my computer, bundled or not, while playing games..

Thank you for your encouraging reply. I agree - my idea of embedding Foldit code into these games may well be a big stretch, but after all, my article describes a "wild dream," the very reason why I love being a scientist.

On the same lines as Rutee's concern, if such a thing were done, it would have to be completely upfront so that all users of the game knew that some of their computer's resources would be used for this purpose. Preferably, it would have to be an opt-in program (perhaps a decision made at the time of installation), which would unfortunately limit the number of people who would actually contribute to this.

However, I should note that there are indeed some people in the video game industry who have thought of this. When I bought my PS3, it came with the option to run a protein-folding program in the background (I think I have it enabled, but I should check). So some people at least are already thinking about this; hopefully more will join in as time goes on.

For this to work, I think you would need to convince the makers of an already popular game to introduce it into the game itself, instead of trying to make a new game and getting players involved. MMORPGs are notorious for crashing and burning, and the vast majority have a tiny playerbase compared to the millions you're talking about. Currently World of Warcraft is still number one by a large margin; they recently made a mini-game within the game that was an homage to Popcap's Plants Vs. Zombies, so there is hope that they would be willing to do something similar again (player feedback was positive). But the guys making this game seem more interested in re-watching barbarian movies than they are in science education, so I'm not sure whether they would be up for something like this.

Another option instead of MMOs might be casual games. People - even people who don't consider themselves gamers - spend a ton of time playing games like Farmville, which also tend to be simpler and less flashy. Perhaps you could get some game designers to spruce up Foldit (it may be realistic, but it's also UGLY) and turn it into an app?

Excellent suggestion, Deb. Thank you! Please pass along the word.

Hi Jeff, (sorry if this is "tl" or strays...)

I know what it is like to see 'wasted' (or, not fully used) effort and wish that it could be used for real, positive developments. One success in this regard could be reCAPTCHA, turning an often-unproductive anti-spam test into the productive digitization of books and newspapers. Here, I think it works because it is a simple, unobtrusive replacement for other equivalent--but non-productive--anti-spam tests. It would be easy to even miss that reCAPTCHA is different than similar tests. The problem for tapping into MMORPGs is that a FoldIt-like game is not equivalent to most of the experiences in typical games, I would think. Perhaps, though, they could be incorporated as puzzles or as the "games within a game" which seem to be intrinsic to many MMOs and social environments, and one can always hope that FoldIt (or something similar) becomes the next standalone hit like Tetris or even computer solitaire.

I must admit, however, that I am personally a bit discouraged since I have been trying to turn people on to distributed volunteer computing since I joined SETI@home ("24 Jul 1999"--I looked it up!) but have had very little success. I try to make the general appeal, and to make specific appeals to self-interest, pointing out the cancer-research, AIDS-research, environmental and global warming research programs, etc. More recently, there has been some extra muscle and attention coming from the IBMâs sponsoring of the World Community Grid. But, I continue to see computer-after-computer, row-after-row sitting idle or running generic screen savers at homes, schools, colleges, doctors' offices, hospitals and government buildings. While I generally think that most of the problem is my ineffective communication and persuasion, the overall penetration of distributed computing seems very modest, at least compared to the potential. So, even where the research requires almost nothing from the users, operating quietly in the background as a really cool 'screensaver', not many are interested.

Perhaps, if I can get myself back interested in politics, Iâll follow the lead of some others and try to getting local and state governments (and, through them, schools, colleges, universities, and some medical centers) more interested, especially given the way distributed computing can be used to build a local supercomputing infrastructure to promote the research programs of local universities and the regional aspirations of becoming a biotech center. But, apathy is always the biggest problem: Oregon offers a $50 tax credit (essentially, FREE MONEY!) to every taxpayer to use on political campaigns and candidates and the vast majority of people donât use that, either.

Yours, Matt Chambers

Foldit Facebook game and iPod app. You'll have this little protein problem solved in about a week.

Those stats on how engaged our youth are in MMORPG is frightening. My son is in the upper tier of that range, spending nearly 30 hours a week on Warcraft. It is hard to take them off when all their friends do it too.

Regards, John

' ...about 10% of male players and 33% of female players have had online "weddings." '

I'm not sure why 'weddings' is in quotes. Does this mean mean that each guy has three wives online? Offline? Or does it mean that three times as many males play ORPG as females? Or what?!