5 games that break into real life

Recently, a new genre of games (and “gamified” services) has emerged. Though the concept is not new, these new games stand at the core of what Games for Change is all about. Think about it – what if the numerous hours we spend playing online games did more than just score us points, get us achievements and level up our characters? What if tagging pictures could make artificial intelligence smarter or solving puzzle could help combat the world’s greatest diseases? Here are 5 games that are on the cutting edge of this movement.

GWAP.com, or Games with a Purpose, creates games that make bots (Web robots) smarter. These bots can perform mathmatical tasks with incredible speed, much faster than humans. However, they still can’t make the distinction between celebrities in images or tell you that a baby is cute. The ESP Game, one of the games you’ll find on the GWAP website, partners you with a stranger and shows you a series of images. While racing the clock, you are asked to pick one word that describes the image best and you and your partner keep making guesses until you both choose the same word. Over time, the millions of answers recorded will help bots become better at tagging images on their own. The inventor of the ESP Game, Carnegie Mellon Professor Luis Von Ahn, is also the inventor of the Captcha and he uses that brilliant engine to assist in mass digitization of books. The technology behind the ESP Game is now licensed by Google and renamed The Google Image Labeler.

Of course, we can utilize our brains for tasks more sophisticated than labeling images. By playing FoldIt, we use our pattern recognition and puzzle solving skills to figure out different patterns in protein creation. The concept itself is sophisticated but simply put, how proteins form can affect bodily functions like digestion, muscle gain and even how diseases act. So considering how different protein structures affect different functions, we can use our puzzle solving skills to figure out better protein designs that could help combat disease or maximize health. The game was designed by the University of Washington’s Departments of Computer Science & Engineering and Biochemistry.

Phylo has similar concept, in which the player aligns colored squares that actually represent different DNA alignments. By simplifying the complex design of DNA structures, we can use our puzzle and pattern recognition skills to create matches for various DNA strands. This is very useful for scientists looking to understand disease, biological mutation and DNA structures within different forms of life. The game was created by Alex Kawrykow and Gary Roumanis from Montreal’s McGill University and the DNA information is provided by the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Genome Browser.

Another series of games are looking to create a more personal change by encouraging and rewarding players for being more physically active in their real life. The most mainstream version of this has been the Pokewalker. An add-in device for a recent release of a Pokemon game for the Nintendo DS, it allows players to “transport” their Pokemon to a small, wearable device with a built-in accelerometer that tracks the player’s movements for up to seven days. The data can then be used to level up the player’s Pokemon. The device was made by GameFreak and Nintendo.

Poised to launch in 2011, Zamzee is another wearable device but instead of leveling up a fictional video game character, players are rewarded for physical activity with points that can be redeemed on the Zamzee website. Like the Pokewalker, Zamzee is targeted at young adults and is calibrated to “understand” their movements. In addition to tracking data on the device, users can upload their stats online to share and compare and then redeem the points they earned for items such as website customization or Amazon gift cards.  Zamzee is created by HopeLab, the innovative design studio responsible for the hugely successful Cancer education game, Re-Mission.

Whether it’s improving artificial intelligence, scientific research or our own health, these new ideas are encouraging to see. They all stand as examples of games that are not only engaging, but affecting the real-world in a meaningful way.

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