When Parkinson’s Disease is a thing of the past, I’ll take comfort in knowing that I played a part in its eradication. Emphasis on ‘played’, de-emphasis on ‘I’. The truth is that hundreds of other Citizen Scientists helped me out. All we had to do was play a game.
Up front, Phylo is a puzzle game that challenges the player with arranging colored squares in patterns on a grid. It’s fun. It’s addictive. But what sets Phylo apart from other similar games, is that by completing the puzzles, you and I are working together on the Awesome Science behind curing real life diseases.
We usually call this sort of thing Crowd Sourcing, but Scientists and Researchers prefer Citizen Science in order to emphasize the connection that the ‘Crowd’ has to actual Scientific results and achievements. There are quite a few examples of Citizen Science. Some, like Seti@Home are passive. The Seti@Home program uses volunteer computers in the search for Extra Terrestrial radio signals. Others are, thankfully, much more interactive. With Hunters users search for far away planets, and Moon Zoo uses images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter allowing players to ‘explore’ the surface of the Moon. Then there are much more familiar, game-esque, iterations of Citizen Science like Foldit and Phylo. As far as I’ve seen, Phylo is the simplest, the most playable, and by far the most addictive of these.
At first, the scoring is a bit hard to grasp. Before you play, the game site will suggest that you take a moment to view the tutorial video which explains the basics of game play and how scores are calculated. I second and third that suggestion. It’s easy once you know what you’re doing, but dive in blind and you may never play Phylo again.
Even though it’s not as intuitive as a lot of puzzle games out there—which have been programmed especially for ease and mindless engagement—when you get a good score on Phylo and the stats screen lets you know that you’ve just brought science this much closer to curing Breast Cancer, well, it’s hard not to feel a little pang of altruistic smugness.
By creating a decently addictive puzzle game out of arranging genome fragments, the developers at the McGill Centre for Bioinformatics, have invited the world to help them with their work without all of the boring stuff and incomprehensible print-outs normally inherent in being a Professional Lab Nerd. For the sake of this article I did some research on Multiple Sequence Alignments which is the behind-the-scenes science of Phylo. Let me tell you: even with a vocabulary undefeated on Words With Friends, I couldn’t get through a single paragraph of this stuff without Googling. If you’re interested, there’s plenty of information available through various web-portals like the UCSC Genome Bioinformatics site. Also, just Wikipedia. But in the barest-bones of paraphrases, this: computers arrange DNA sequences to a point, then Phylo invites people to experiment with those sequences at a degree of exactitude that would be way to expensive to program! Done.
So there’s a learning curve which I wouldn’t call steep so much as time consuming—maybe more time than the casual gamer is willing to spend to get the basic hang of it—but when you’re playing Phylo you’re not just a casual gamer. In a very real sense, you’re a member of the Scientific Community. What’s more, if you’re especially good at the game, you may just pat yourself on the back for being a genuine life saver.
I hope that we see more games like this in the future. Also, Phylo would be a really fantastic mobile game if the developers could tweak the interface a bit, accounting for the lack of a shift key(shift is super crucial when you’re playing). Currently the mobile version available leaves a lot to be desired. Maybe some good-hearted programmer reading this could lend their talents to the cause. For now I’ll keep on playing Phylo because I’m grossly competitive…also I’m pretty close to kicking Alzheimer’s butt.
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