Gamification of Science: Making Science Fun

The Video Gamers United recently convened in Washington DC. As I glanced at its imposing, back-lit poster decking the otherwise drab walls of the metro station on my way to work, I started thinking about science-based video games and their impact on science education. It turns out, science-based video gaming is a flourishing field, with numerous games being developed for the purposes of edutainment and advancement of science: EteRNA, FoldIt, Genomics Digital Lab, History of Biology game, Phylo, and Nanomission to name a few. These video games are designed to solve complex scientific problems, develop interest in the area, and serve as a tool for learning. The question is: Do they work?

Several science games take advantage of citizen science by crowdsourcing complex scientific challenges sometimes too hairy for even advanced computer programs. The idea is that many minds together can solve a complex problem better than one mind or one machine alone. Stemming from this principle of game with a purpose is EteRNA, a puzzle-based game that enables development of new designs of RNA molecules by the gaming community. Created by researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University in 2010, the game allows players to contribute to a large scale library of RNA designs, helping reveal “new principles for designing RNA-based switches and nanomachines– — new systems for seeking and eventually controlling living cells and disease-causing viruses.” Interestingly, playing the game does not require any training in biology.  EteRNA is considered a successful project, with over 150,000 players engaged in designing novel RNA molecules to be used in real-life research.

Another crowdsourced game Phylo, designed to augment genetic disease research, looks a lot like the classic Tetris at first glance. Players are asked to align blocks of similar colors. Unbeknownst to many players, the blocks represent gene sequences from different species. The better a player does at matching the sequences the more points she accrues.  The computer programs designed for doing this type of multiple sequence alignment do not necessarily produce superior results, often requiring scientists to manually align some sequences to attain the most appropriate alignment. This is where the Phylo players come in. More than 300,000 people have played Phylo since its launch in 2010.

Another big motivation for developing science-based video games is helping players develop an interest in science. The History of Biology is a good example. Designed by Spongelab Interactive, the game follows a scavenger hunt format, where players solve a mystery based on clues illustrating seminal discoveries in the world of scientific research. Spongelab Interactive is a major developer of several other educational games, covering a wide-range of subjects such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, and history.

Many video games are also built as tools for learning. The idea is to use a cultural tool, something that students of a particular culture respond to, aka video games, to enable learning in a familiar and friendly format (see article by Morris et al, 2013). Students learn the process of scientific thinking as well as key concepts in a self-paced environment, where learning is assessed by ability to overcome increasingly difficult levels, and rewarded through a feeling of achievement. NanoMission is an educational game, with the goal to teach players about the up and coming field of nanotechnology. Through multiple modules of the game, players engage in a variety of stimulating activities, such as guiding a nanorobot in killing cancer cells in a patient; or creating improved nanomedicine or nanomachines; or destroying harmful algae.

While video games can help in accomplishing all of the above, an important criterion for judging their potency is assessing the accuracy of the science they represent. Caution must be taken when facts are misrepresented in an attempt to make the game interesting or technically feasible. Reinforcing inaccurate concepts about science can not only be ineffective in generating interest and increasing knowledge, but also detrimental to the overall learning experience of the player (see review of Spore by John Bohannon).

Though gradually gaining popularity, gamified science, so to speak, has yet to become integrated into the vast world of conventional video games. Hinting towards a positive future, however, is the fact that the Washington DC Video Gamers United Convention featured several keynote speakers specializing in serious games, including Christopher Spivey, Sande Chen, and Trey Reyheran excellent move for science gamification.

Antioxidants: to take or not to take?

A new study published in Science Translational Medicine shows that antioxidants, specifically vitamin E and acetylcysteine (NAC), can actually worsen lung cancer in mice, putting to question the popular belief that antioxidants fight cancer.

An antioxidant is any molecule that prevents oxidation of other molecules by reacting with free radicals produced naturally as a byproduct of oxygen metabolism. Free radicals can react with normal cells and cause damage to cells and even to their DNA. A damaged DNA can increase the likelihood of developing cancer. Luckily, the body has its own line of antioxidants that neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals on healthy cells. Based on this reasoning, several companies actually extract antioxidants from various sources and sell them for use as dietary supplements, supporting the notion that antioxidants promote good health.

DNA damage, however, is not always a bad thing. It can induce the expression of tumor suppressor genes such as p53, which work to prevent emergence of cancerous cells. Thus, the running debate among scientists and doctors alike has been whether or not antioxidants should be recommended to patients with cancer. On one hand, they reduce DNA damage, which can lead to cancerous cells, while on the other hand; they obstruct the beneficial tumor suppressor genes.

According to the data generated by Sayin et al., antioxidants are a bad idea, if cancer already exists. The authors report “antioxidant supplementation of the diet reduces DNA damage in mice, prevents p53 activation, and markedly increases tumor cell proliferation and tumor growth in mice.”

The authors speculate that “antioxidants are unsafe in patients with early stages of lung cancer and in people at risk of developing the disease…this may be relevant to patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, who are often smokers with an increased risk of developing lung cancer and ingest high amounts of NAC to relieve mucus production.”

It seems that when it comes to good health, there is really no magic pill. Thus, like most dietary supplements, antioxidants should also be taken only at the recommendation of a doctor.

The Ripple Effect: Hidden Costs of Courtship Cues

The one fundamental quality shared unwaveringly among all living species is the commitment to reproduction. Thus, remarkable courtship behaviors have evolved among species dedicated to attracting a promising mate. These include distinctive songs, conspicuous display of plumage, bright colors, and bioluminescence and offering of shelter and food. Needless to say, every advertised mating cue poses a certain cost to the individual. The costs can become monumental when these cues inadvertently tip-off competitors as well as life-threatening predators and parasites.

This principle has been elegantly demonstrated in a recent study published in Science by W. Halfwerk et al (2014). The subjects of the study are male tungara frogs, which produce distinct sounds to attract a female mate. The ritual takes place in shallow ponds of water where several male frogs gather at night and try their best at winning a date.  A byproduct of these mating calls is the production of discernible ripples in the water, begging the question-are these ripples perceived as additional mating cues?

Thus, Halfwerk and team tested the effect of ripples on male-male competition as well as on predation by frog-eating bats.  To test the effect on competition, the team created an experimental set up where a male frog was exposed to either a combination of call sound and ripples or ripples alone or sound alone. The resulting observation was that male frogs responded aggressively to the combination of sound and ripples by more than doubling their own call rate, when compared to their call rate with sound alone. Moreover, males did not respond to ripples alone, implying that the ripples had to be associated with a call sound in order to be perceived as a rival cue.

Frogs prevent predation during courtship by ceasing mate calling in response to any sign of predators such as bats. However, the ripples from their calls linger in the water for a few seconds even after call cessation. Thus, to test the effect of these ripples on predation, Halfwerk and team used two pools of shallow water, each fitted with a robotic frog and acoustic sound, mimicking mating calls. The experimental pool also generated ripples, while the control did not. In this scenario, the team observed that bats strongly preferred to prey on frogs that displayed sound and ripples, in comparison to frogs with sound alone, rendering the defense strategy of frogs of ceasing mating calls ineffective against predation.

The study highlights the selective pressure imposed by competition and predation on the evolution of elaborate courtship behavior. The individuals seem to need to strike a healthy balance between being highly elaborate and conspicuous to provoke attraction in a suitable mate, while remaining subtle enough to avoid getting noticed by predators.

It would be interesting to also test the effect of the ripples on female frogs in this system. Do they prefer frogs associated with sound and ripples more than the ones with sounds alone? Does this preference hold up even in the presence of predator cues? These follow-up questions would provide even more insights into the complexity of intra and interspecies interactions in nature.


W. Halfwerk et al. (2014) Risky Ripples Allow Bats and Frogs to Eavesdrop on a Multisensory Sexual Display. Science 343: 413-416

Breakthrough in Science’s Price: Life Sciences Breakthrough Prize

Without a doubt, the most coveted honor in any academic field, including life sciences, is the Nobel Prize. At a lavish ceremony held annually at Stockholm, the laureate receives a regal gold medal, an exclusive diploma and a hefty cash prize-currently amounting to USD1.2 million.  In addition, the laureate also receives the ultimate worldwide validation of his or her achievement-an accolade on its own.

Established as a result of the will written by Alfred Nobel, the Prize is intended to recognize people who have made significant contributions to the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, literature, peace and economics. A prolific chemist and engineer himself, Alfred Nobel built his fortune through copious inventions. In an attempt to be remembered favorably by the world, he left his fortune for the recognition of innovators who produced knowledge yielding the “greatest benefit to mankind.”

Yuri Milner, a modern-day magnate, seems to have a similar vision. An entrepreneur and venture capitalist by profession, Milner started out studying theoretical physics, but gave it up to pursue business. The result: a billion dollar fortune.

Perhaps to commemorate his first love for Physics, Milner, in 2012, established the Fundamental Physics Prize-given annually to a significant contributor to the field of physics. The laureate receives USD 3 million as part of the recognition- more than double the amount given for the Nobel Prize. What’s more? Milner did not stop with Physics.

In 2013, he teamed up with other opulent giants of our times, including Arthur Levinson, chairman of Apple Inc. and Genetech, Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, Anne Wojcicki, a biologist and an entrepreneur, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook with wife Priscilla Chan, to establish the Life Sciences Breakthrough Prize, awarded annually to six life science researchers. The prize also includes USD 3 million given to each of the six recipients.

These awards and the large sums of money they carry have received mixed reviews. Some welcome such monetary support to brilliant minds (considering that the Nobel prize money is split even further among multiple laureates); others scorn at the prizes, accusing them of attempting to buy the prestige of a Nobel Prize.

I wonder how Alfred Nobel would feel about these prizes. Seeing as how he wanted his own money to be given to discoverers who benefited mankind, I can’t help but believe that he would indeed welcome these upcoming prizes. And let’s face it. Research is expensive. USD 3 million sounds like a big amount at first but is nothing that a handful of genome-sequencing projects cannot exhaust!