Video games sometimes get a bad rap by critics who argue that the entertainment form is a bad influence, that it desensitizes and even rots gamers' brains. Even so, studies continue to show that gaming can improve things like response time and mental acuity. Now, it turns out, gamers can even outperform scientists in doing science, reports

Players of a popular online puzzle game called Foldit beat all the experts in a contest to discover a complex protein's shape. Not only did they best professional crystallographers, they even beat computer algorithms designed to assemble proteins. It's an impressive show for a class of people often unfairly labeled as slackers.

"It shows that anybody with a 3-D mentality, including gamers, can do something that previously only scientists did, and in doing so they can help scientific progress," said study co-author James Bardwell.

The competition included two trained crystallographers, 61 University of Michigan undergraduates who used a computer modeling program in class, and two separate computer algorithms. Gamers had the advantage of numbers: there were 469 players using the Foldit program to solve the problem. But this detail speaks to another advantage of gaming: it attracts more participation because it's fun. The game's competitive nature also spurs contagious involvement.

"I've seen how much players learn about proteins from playing this game," study co-author Scott Horowitz said. "We spend weeks and weeks trying to jam this into students' brains and Foldit players learn it naturally because it's fun."

The gamers' success could lead to major changes in how classrooms operate. A usually-dry subject like protein modeling can be made fun, encouraging engagement in a subject that usually doesn't attract a lot of interest by students. Imagine if signing up for classes was like walking down the video game aisle at your local retailer.

To get a grasp at just how valuable this simple project was, the protein targeted by the competition revealed a new family of proteins that might be involved in preventing plaque formation, such as what is seen in Alzheimer's patients.

"We think this is a big deal because interpreting an electron-density map can be a labor-intensive, error-prone process — and we show that crowd-sourced Foldit players can do it as well as, or better than, professionally trained crystallographers," said graduate student Brian Koepnick of the University of Washington Institute for Protein Design, who helped design the contest and analyze the results.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Video gamers beat scientists and computers in discovering complex protein shape
Using a puzzle game called Foldit, gamers prove their worth by besting the experts in this study from the University of Michigan.