Category: Video games

Computer gamers develop problem-solving algorithm that beats scientists’ best efforts

By Ed Yong | November 7, 2011 3:00 pm

A group of computer gamers are making habit of outshining scientists at their own game. Most of them have no scientific background, but they have a track record of cracking tough scientific puzzles, including at least one that went unsolved for over a decade. They are the Foldit players, and for their latest trick, they’ve shown that they can not only solve hard problems, but also create problem-solving tools that outperform the best in the business.

Foldit is an online multiplayer game, created by Seth Cooper and Zoran Popovic at the University of Washington. It’s designed to tap the collecting problem-solving skills of thousands of people, by reframing scientific problems in a way that even a complete novice can tackle.

In the game, players work together to decipher the structures of proteins. These molecules are feats of biological origami; they consist of long chains of amino acids that scrunch up into complicated three-dimensional shapes. Scientists need to resolve these shapes to understand how the proteins work, and the usual methods involve bouncing X-rays off purified crystals (which is difficult) or using predictive software (which is imperfect). Cooper and Popovic went down a third route: they got gamers to play their way to a solution.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Select, Technology, Video games

Computer gamers solve problem in AIDS research that puzzled scientists for years

By Ed Yong | September 18, 2011 1:00 pm

When scientists struggle with a problem for over a decade, few of them think, “I know! I’ll ask computer gamers to help.” That, however, is exactly what Firas Khatib from the University of Washington did. The result: he and his legion of gaming co-authors have cracked a longstanding problem in AIDS research that scientists have puzzled over for years. It took them three weeks.

Khatib’s recruits played Foldit, a programme that reframes fiendish scientific challenges as a competitive multiplayer computer game. It taps into the collective problem-solving skills of tens of thousands of people, most of whom have little or no background in science. Here’s what I wrote about Foldit last year:

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Tetris could prevent post-traumatic stress disorder flashbacks (but quiz games make them worse)

By Ed Yong | November 10, 2010 5:00 pm

TetrisThis is an updated version of one of my favourite stories from last year, edited to include a sequel study that develops and expands on the first one.

You’ve just been in a horrific car crash. You’re unharmed but the vividness of the experience – the sight of a looming car, the crunching of metal, the overwhelming panic – has left you a bit traumatised. You want something to help take the edge off and fortunately a doctor is on hand to prescribe you with… Tetris.

Yes, that Tetris. According to Emily Holmes from the University of Oxford, the classic video game of falling coloured blocks could prevent people who have suffered through a traumatic experience from developing full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As ideas go, it’s practically the definition of quirky, but there is scientific method behind the madness.

Every traumatic experience flips a mental hourglass that runs out in about six hours. After that time, memories of the original event become firmly etched in the brain, greatly increasing the odds that the person will experience the vivid, distressing flashbacks that are the hallmark of PTSD. But the brain, powerful though it is, only has so much processing power available for laying down such memories. If something can be done soon enough to interfere with this process, the symptoms of PTSD could potentially be prevented.

Tetris, it seems, makes an ideal choice for that. To position its rotating blocks, players need good “visuospatial skills” – they need to see, focus on, and act upon the positions of different objects, all at high speed. These are the same sort of mental abilities that provide the foundations for flashback images.

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Foldit – tapping the wisdom of computer gamers to solve tough scientific puzzles

By Ed Yong | August 4, 2010 1:44 pm

Foldit

It’s not every day that people can get published in one of the world’s leading scientific journals by playing computer games, but Foldit is no ordinary game. The brainchild of Seth Cooper from the University of Washington, Foldit taps into the collective efforts of tens of thousands computer gamers to solve scientific problems.

The goal of the game is to work out the complicated three-dimensional structures of different proteins. Proteins are feats of biological origami; they consist of long chains of amino acids that fold into very specific and complicated shapes. These shapes can reveal how proteins work but solving them is fiendishly challenging. To do it, scientists typically need to grow crystals of purified protein before bouncing X-rays off them. Foldit takes a different approach, using the collective efforts of causal gamers to do the hard work. And its best players can outperform software designed to do the same job. Read More

Brain-training games get a D at brain-training tests

By Ed Yong | April 20, 2010 1:00 pm

Braintrain.jpgYou don’t have to look very far to find a multi-million pound industry supported by the scantiest of scientific evidence. Take “brain-training”, for example. This fledgling market purports to improve the brain’s abilities through the medium of number problems, Sudoku, anagrams and the like. The idea seems plausible and it has certainly made bestsellers out of games like Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training and Big Brain Academy. But a new study by Adrian Owen from Cambridge University casts doubt on the claims that these games can boost general mental abilities.

Owen recruited 11,430 volunteers through a popular science programme on the BBC called “Bang Goes the Theory”. He asked them to play several online games intended to improve an individual skill, be it reasoning, memory, planning, attention or spatial awareness. After six weeks, with each player training their brains on the games several times per week, Owen found that the games improved performance in the specific task, but not in any others.

That may seem like a victory but it’s a very shallow one. You would naturally expect people who repeatedly practice the same types of tests to eventually become whizzes at them. Indeed, previous studies have found that such improvements do happen. But becoming the Yoda of Sudoku doesn’t necessarily translate into better all-round mental agility and that’s exactly the sort of boost that the brain-training industry purports to provide. According to Owen’s research, it fails.

All of his recruits sat through a quartet of “benchmarking” tests to assess their overall mental skills before the experiment began. The recruits were then split into three groups who spent the next six weeks doing different brain-training tests on the BBC Lab UK website, for at least 10 minutes a day, three times a week. For any UK readers, the results of this study will be shown on BBC One tomorrow night (21 April) on Can You Train Your Brain?

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RCT: video games can hamper reading and writing skills in young boys by displacing other activities

By Ed Yong | February 23, 2010 9:30 am

I grew up in the days of the SNES and the Sega Megadrive. Even then, furious debates would rage about the harm (or lack thereof) that video games would inflict on growing children. A few decades later, little has changed. The debate still rages, fuelled more by the wisdom of repugnance than by data. With little regard for any actual evidence, pundits like Baroness Susan Greenfield, former Director of the Royal Institution, claim that video games negatively “rewire” our brains, infantilising us, depriving us of our very identities and even instigating the financial crisis.

Of course, the fact that video games are irrationally vilified doesn’t mean that they are automatically harmless. There’s still a need for decent studies that assess their impact on behaviour. One such study has emerged from Denison University, where Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky have tested what happens when you give young boys, aged 6-9, a new video game system. 

They found that after 4 months, boys who had received the games had lower reading and writing scores than expected, failing to improve to the same degree as their console-less peers. They also faced more academic problems at school. At first this might seem like support for the rewired brains of Greenfield’s editorials, but the reality is much simpler – the games were displacing other after-school academic activities. While some children were finishing their homework or reading bedtime stories, those with games were mashing buttons.

There is much to like about Weis and Cerankosky’s study. For a start, it is a randomised controlled trial (RCT), one of the most reliable ways of finding out if something is truly causing a specific effect. Indeed, it is the first such trial looking into the effects of video games on the academic abilities and behaviour of young boys.

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Playing shoot-em-up video games can improve some aspects of vision

By Ed Yong | March 29, 2009 1:00 pm

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAnyone who has played video games for too long is probably familiar with the sore, tired and dry eyes that accompany extended bouts of shooting things with rocket launchers. So it might come as a surprise that playing games could actually improve a key aspect of our eyesight.

Renjie Li from the University of Rochester found that intensive practice at shoot-em-ups like Unreal Tournament 2004 and Call of Duty 2 improved a person’s ability to spot the difference between subtly contrasting shades of grey. In the real world, this “contrast sensitivity function” is reflected in the crispness of our vision, affecting how well we see objects that don’t stand out well against their backgrounds. It’s the key to our ability to drive or walk about at night, or in conditions with poor visibility.

Unfortunately, contrast sensitivity is one of the first aspects of our vision to go with ageing and it’s compromised by conditions like lazy eyes. This loss can be caused by either faults with the eye itself or neurological problems. Opticians usually try to treat the former with glasses, contact lenses or laser surgery, but Li’s group have found that action video games can provide a counter-intuitive solution for the latter. Compared to other enjoyable but less hair-trigger games, like the Sims, playing shoot-em-ups seems to improve contrast sensitivity and their benefits last for months or even years.

UnrealTournament.jpg

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Violent films and games delay people from helping others

By Ed Yong | March 16, 2009 8:30 am

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe effect that violent films and games have on our minds, and the implications for their place in society, has been a source of much heated debate. Now, a new study looks set to fan the flames even further. Several studies have found that violent media can desensitise people to real acts of violence, but Brad Bushman from the University of Michigan and Craig Anderson from Iowa State University have produced the first evidence that this can actually change a person’s behaviour, affecting their decisions to help others in need.

Using professional actors, they found that after 20 minutes of playing a violent video game, people who heard a loud fight that ended with an injury took longer to help the victim, and believed that the fight was less serious. Likewise, people who watched a violent film took longer to help an injured woman to pick up her crutches outside the cinema. In the duo’s own words, “Violent media make people numb to the pain and suffering of others.”

In the first study, Bushman and Anderson recruited 320 students under the pretence of studying their tastes in video games. The recruits played 20 minutes of either a violent video game (Carmageddon, Duke Nukem, Mortal Kombat or Future Cop) or a non-violent one (Glider Pro, 3D Pinball, Austin Powers or Tetra Madness).  After playing, the recruits were left alone to fill in a questionnaire. They wrote their favourite type of video game (fighting, fantasy, skill, sports and so on) followed by over 200 questions on such games.

This massive list of questions was a red herring, designed to keep the volunteers busy. Three minutes into the time, Bushman and Anderson played a recording outside the room of two actors fighting about how one stole the other’s partner. The actors’ gender was matched to the recruit inside and the two quickly descended into a shouting match and came to blows.

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Tetris to prevent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder flashbacks

By Ed Yong | January 11, 2009 10:00 am

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchYou’ve just been in a horrific car crash. You’re unharmed but the vividness of the experience – the sight of a looming car, the crunching of metal, the overwhelming panic – has left you a bit traumatised. You want something to help take the edge off and fortunately a doctor is on hand to prescribe you with… Tetris.

Tetris.jpgYes, that Tetris. According to Emily Holmes from the University of Oxford, the classic video game of falling coloured blocks could prevent people who have suffered through a traumatic experience from developing full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As ideas go, it’s practically the definition of quirky, but there is scientific method behind the madness.

Every traumatic experience flips a mental hourglass that runs out in about six hours. After that time, memories of the original event become firmly etched in the brain, greatly increasing the odds that the person will experience the vivid, distressing flashbacks that are the hallmark of PTSD. But the brain, powerful though it is, only has so much processing power available for laying down such memories. If something can be done soon enough to interfere with this process, the symptoms of PTSD could potentially be prevented.

Tetris, it seems, makes an ideal choice for that. To position its rotating blocks, players need good “visuospatial skills” – they need to see, focus on, and act upon the positions of different objects, all at high speed. These are the same sort of mental abilities that provide the foundations for flashback images.

Holmes’s idea is that playing Tetris after a shocking event would take up the same mental resources that would normally be used to consolidate future flashbacks. In doing so, the notoriously addictive game could act as a “cognitive vaccine” against PTSD and provide an ironic example of a video game actually being good for you…

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Single memory training task improves overall problem-solving intelligence

By Ed Yong | April 29, 2008 8:30 am


Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
Forget ‘smart drugs’ or brain-training video games. According to new research, a deceptively simple memory task can do what no drug or game has done before – it can boost your ‘fluid intelligence‘, your ability to adapt your powers of reasoning to new challenges. Fluid intelligence doesn’t rely on previous knowledge, skills or experience. It’s at work when we solve new problems or puzzles, when we draw inferences and spot patterns, and when we test ideas and design experiments. To see what I mean, try testing yours.

Braintrain.jpg Fluid intelligence appears to be strongly influenced by inherited genetic factors and is closely related to success in both the classroom and the workplace. The ability plays such a central role in our lives that it begs an obvious question: is there any way of improving your fluid intelligence through training?

Video game manufacturers would like you to think so. Games like Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training and Big Brain Academy are suggestively marketed as ways of improving your brain’s abilities through the medium of number problems, Sudoku and word puzzles. As a result, your brain will allegedly become younger. And look, Nicole Kidman likes them. The pitch is certainly a successful one – these games are bestsellers and are increasingly joined by a swarm of imitators. Last year, the worth of the US brain-training market alone was estimated at about $80 million.

Whether these products actually work is open to debate but there is certainly no strong evidence that they do anything beyond improving performance at specific tasks. That seems fairly obvious – people who repeatedly practice the same types of tests, such as number sequences, will become better at them over time but may not improve in other areas, like memory or spatial awareness. But acquiring Jedi-levels skills in one specific task is a far cry from increasing your overall fluid intelligence; it’d be like saying that you’re a better musician because your scales are second-to-none.

Nonetheless, Susanne Jaeggi from the University of Michigan has developed a training programme involving a challenging memory task, which does appears to improve overall fluid intelligence. The trainees do better in intelligence tests that have nothing to do with the training task itself and the more training they receive, the higher their scores.

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