Gamers Help Fight AIDS

Online players solve a tough problem that had scientists stumped for a decade.


Credit: Reason Magazine

For more than 10 years, health researchers have been stumped by an enzyme that helps retroviral infections like AIDS reproduce. Biologists studying the enzyme were unable to model its shape, a crucial first step in figuring out how to beat it.

Recently scientists turned the problem over to an unusual team of collaborators: video gamers. Using Foldit, a free online protein folding game developed at the University of Washington in 2008, those gamers competed to see who could produce the most accurate virtual model of the real-life enzyme.

In just three weeks, gamers accomplished what scientists had been unable to do for more than a decade—no special scientific under- standing required. The game offers players an intuitive 3D modeling interface that can be learned in just a few minutes. It then awards a score for each model; a higher score means a virtual virus that more closely fits the known requirements for the enzyme. 

For gamers, it's a milestone. "This is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem," according to an article published online by Nature Structural & Molecular Biology in September. But it won't be the last. The game goes on, and according to Foldit's blog, more scientific revelations are already on the way. 

Peter Suderman is an associate editor at reason.

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  1. but according to Jack Thompson and Hillary Clinton, video games are destroying the youth of America and will lead to the collapse of western civilization!

  2. I see a movie deal coming out of this.

    Wouldn’t you rather see that movie than another superhero-in-tights borefest?

    1. how about a superheroine-in-tights?

      1. Olivia Munn as Wonder Woman?

          1. She can play with me golden lasso any time!


    2. Of course, there would have to be a love interest and/or AIDS victim. One of the gamers should have a lover with a super-strong variety of AIDS which current medicines don’t affect, and only the discovery of a cure will etc. etc.

      Plus an elderly scientist who tries to sabotage/steal the work of the gamers, because he’s jealous of a bunch of video game nerds stealing credit from scientists.

      1. Or a superheroine in tights. That would work, too.

      2. Don’t forget the wrongly convicted ex-con with a heart of gold to guide the kids when all hope looks lost.

      3. The evil scientist needs to be ex-military or somehow involved with an “evil” corporation. Oh wait, that’s redundant for screen-writers.

    3. oh, and since it’s video game related, I’m sure Uwe Boll will want to direct it. He makes fantastic movies based off of video games.

      1. And the game should be a virtual-reality thing where, if you die in the game, you die in real life. While the heroes race against time to map the enzyme, the mad scientist chases them up and down the DNA strands, or something.

        1. Neo: I thought this wasn’t real.
          Morpheus: Your mind makes it real.
          Neo: So if you’re killed in the Matrix, you die here?
          Morpheus: The body cannot live without the mind.

          Okay, but how does that explain most of OWS?

          1. There’s probably some vestigial function left in the reptilian brain. Like zombies. (*like* zombies?)

            1. So they are giving Romero material for a new movie?

              1. Probably – have all the homeless in the vicinity of Zuccoti Park been accounted for?

    4. Speaking of ows – perhaps the evil scientist could work for a pharmaceutical company which doesn’t want to lose the profits it makes so long as AIDS isn’t cured. Many video-gamers will love that story line.

      The evil pharma company could lyingly boast of its ability to protect the public. It could be called, say, the Raincoat Corporation, or the Parasol Company . . . no, still not right, I’ll think of something, though…

  3. My cousin goes to Cal Poly, and his roommates all play video games all day long while not in class.

    One of the best engineering schools in the country.

    1. I played video games all thoughout engineering undergrad. One of my favorite memories of a roommate is when my friend was over playing Halo with me. His obnoxious roommate stopped by to lecture us about “wasting our lives” playing video games. My roommate overheard and interjected with “They both have 4.0s in engineering. You are studying art.”

  4. and antibodies attack and eat someone. and then the one-handed henchman is dissolved in stomach acid.

  5. I wonder, is an implication of this that game designers are a more formidable opponent than nature?

  6. What lesson do we learn from this? That if scientists want to get serious about solving problems, they’re going to have to start consuming more Doritos and Mountain Dew!

  7. I keep hearing this interpretation – implying that uneducated couch potatoes sat down and spent a few hours curing HIV. It doesn’t match up with the initial coverage of the discovery, which implied that a small, dedicated team of ‘gamers’, who had backgrounds in biology, used a 3D simulation with a game-like interface to discover new protein folding configurations.

    Yes, it’s a great narrative – your snowflake isn’t wasting his life in front of his XBox, because one day those button-mashing skills are going to cure cancer. I’m just not so sure that it’s true.

    1. But they might be used to mash alien bug armies.

    2. Video game skills are very applicable in the field of surgery.

  8. I spent 4 hours playing MadWorld last week. I didn’t cure shit.

    1. did you cure boredom? That game is sick!

  9. I already know how to cure AIDS….don’t put your wing wang ( a medical term) in a total strangers caboose (a train reference)and don’t let an engine from a stranger go into your tunnel. How am I doing?

    1. You forgot don’t share needles. Sorry, I don’t have a cutesy way of phrasing that.

  10. I just dont understand why so many of my customers now operate R.O.V’s and surgical apparatus.

    Now their curing desiese, exploring oceans, and building space stations instead ripple firing fragmentation rockets!

    I miss the terrain hugging, SAM dodging, cluster bombing, red out glory days!

  11. This is really a good news for us, good job.

  12. I was twenty years old to leave his home alone Happy world, always on hand less well-off. Half had had a Japanese friend sympathy, half derisively said to me: “I’ve never seen such a poor people like you!”

  13. Get some serious gamers on this. How about holding a tournament and giving out prize money? Hardcore gamers will do some pretty jaw-dropping feats of skill. Give the gaming community some incentive and let’s cure disease together 😀

    Achievement Unlocked: Cured AIDS

  14. this article is a little bit of interest, make me like it.

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