Human Elements: Cutting edge science via video game adventures

A UW computer scientist wants to change the way we learn — and contribute to science.

For Zoran Popovic, video games can be more than fun diversions or even escapes into new worlds. He sees them as the key to solving some of science’s most difficult problems.

Popovic believes everyone has the potential to be a scientist. All you need are the right tools.

Popovic is the director at the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science. There, his team takes complex scientific questions and transforms them into computer games that average people can play and help solve.

The games that Popovic and his team build look like simple spatial puzzles. Imagine Tetris, but instead of aiming for a high score, winning could help end some of the greatest human diseases in history — things like flu, Ebola, dementia, Alzheimer's and AIDS. For example, in the game Foldit, the colorful shapes and blocks players arrange look like many other games — but they actually represent the proteins that power a living cell.

However, these complex problems are too big for machines or humans alone. While computers are good at sorting through large datasets, people are much better at tasks that require spatial reasoning.

“This is where I see games becoming immensely powerful. as a way in which we can bring people who want to help towards super productive ways,” Popovic said, “in which they mesh with their disparate expertises in such a way that we can solve these problems that we simply have no way of solving today.”


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