Harnessing the Power of Play for Medical Problem Solving

“A lot of smart people have great ideas, but few ever follow through with them,” says medtech entrepreneur Mir Imran in a book titled “Innovative Doctoring: Solutions Lie within Us” by Jeffrey S. Grossman, MD. Imran continues: “The fear of failure is what holds people back. What separates an inventor and entrepreneur from the academic researchers is their ability to take risks and to fail at something and not be devastated by it.”

Seth Cooper
 Cooper's TEDMED talk was titled “Why is My Joystick Smarter Than Your Stethoscope?”

Speaking at TEDMED, computer scientist Seth Cooper, PhD, advocated a very similar strategy to successfully tackle real-world problems. But with a twist: He recommended that video games could be used to this end. “We are more willing to try new and seemingly crazy ideas when we are not quite as concerned about the outcome,” he said in his talk. And gaming can provide such an environment. 

As it turns out, video games are all about problem solving—and always have been. But the problems that game designers build into them are generally completely artificial. For instance, defeating Bowser in Super Mario Bros. is unlikely to convey much benefit on society at large. But excelling in Foldit, a game that Cooper helped develop, just might because it tasks players with difficult solving protein structure problems that have perplexed biochemists.

Last year, players of the game solved for the shape of a protein related to AIDS in rhesus monkeys. “Scientists had been working on that for 10 years and gamers solved it in three weeks,” said Cooper, who is now the Creative Director of the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington. The game now has hundreds of thousands of players spanning the globe, he added. 

Players of Foldit have also worked with scientists to optimize a new synthetic protein that was more efficient than the previous iteration that that scientists had developed. Current Foldit fans are now working on now developing new inhibitors for the flu virus. 

In the future, we could see games that charge games with solving other medical problems such as developing disease-fighting nanomachines or verifying medical device software.

“With all of these people engaged in play, I think we’ll see a difference in the structures of medical problem solving and discovery—with gaming communities that are like huge worldwide research labs,” Cooper explained.

Brian Buntz is the editor-at-large at UBM Canon's medical group. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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