Is it game night yet?

It’s Thursday night. Just one more day to plow through until you reach Friday night with all its movies and drinks. Well, we can’t tell you how to speed up time but we can tell you how to feel like it’s going faster. Play computer games. 

Now, we are talking about Genspace, and we do have a bit of reputation to maintain. So as much as I would like to recommend everyone to get cracking on the with Starcraft 2 we’ll have to make do with something different; a computer game with science in it.

It’s called Phylo, and you can find it here. Phylo is an entirely browser based (flash based, to be specific. Sorry to disappoint all my iPad toting readers) and doesn’t require any serious computing muscle on the player’s end. I’ve been playing it for the last hour or so, and it’s an odd piece of work. On the surface the game follows some basic rules of pattern matching casual games you might be familiar with like Bejeweled. Yet the experience of playing the game feels far more complex than that, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. Also, there’s a real benefit to playing this game on your spare time, other than gaining the l33t skills to pwn the n00bs with.

You see, Phylo is ‘a human computing framework for comparative genomics.’ Basically it gives you real multiple sequence alignment problems represented by 4 color blocks scattered on a grid. And of course, budding bio-enthusiasts like us know what’s up when a science programs give us 4 of anything- they represent nucleotide sequences. As you match same colored blocks with each other, you contribute some of your brain power to finding aligned sequences between different genes. If you misalign the blocks you lose a point, and if you create gaps between the blocks (which represent mutation) you lose lots of points. You can gain points by aligning same color blocks on vertical row and you need to gain certain amount of points to pass a level or get another gene to align with your existing sequence. This is a very abstract process of optimization that is usually done with complex computer algorithms and lots of processing power, which would be prohibitively expensive when brute-forced. The authors of the program hope to use the human-computer interaction on a large scale to come up with optimized heuristic pattern.


This is how Phylo looks
The logic is sound. After all, usefulness of human ability to find patterns in complex biological simulations have already been proven worthwhile with the protein folding puzzle game and the Nature paper that came out of it. Guess who’s a co-author of a nature paper.  ;)

This is how it might look on a scientists’ computer
I’ve played around with the DNA code responsible for idiopathic generalized epilepsy and already 160 other people attempted to solve the puzzle… And 146 people failed. And there lies the problem of biology-turned games. You see, unlike regular puzzle games like Bejeweled or Tetris, not everything will fit together with perfect logical coherency. Granted, there are a few techniques you can use to treat this like any other game (for example, don’t waste your time moving around single blocks in the beginning stages. Crush them together into single group for maximum points in shortest amount of time), but the fact is not everything will fit together and it can be rather jarring for a beginner to figure out what he/she’s doing right, since there isn’t any satisfying feedback to a ‘correct’ sequence formation. It can’t be helped though. This is science, and no one knows the correct answer to detect and give you feedback with. Maybe that’s the whole reason why you should play this game. After all, would you play a match in starcraft with predetermined outcome?
I for one, am looking forward to the future where all games contribute to the discovery of science in some shape or form.
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