04/29/2011 03:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2011

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 percent of male players and 33 percent 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?

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 games 1, 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 methodology 4, 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 <.001) and="" also="" spend="" more="" hours="" in="" the="" game="" than="" male="" players="" (22.3="" vs.="" 19.0,="" p="" ="">

A version of this article was published at "Dean's Corner" at ScienceBlogs.