Each protein is made up of an amino acid chain that folds
into a particular ideal shape, emitting the lowest amount of
energy. The scientific community already knows the genetic
makeup of many proteins, but doesn't know how they fold up
into these complex shapes.
"Foldit" turns protein folding into a competitive sport, as
players click and twist the snakelike 3-D images on their
screen. The goal is to condense the protein down to its most
compact shape, with the fewest number of gaps or holes. The
"Foldit" computer program calculates a score, and high
scores are investigated further by the University of
Finding the ideal structure and shape of a protein "can help
you understand what the protein does, how it acts, and might
provide a starting point to block its action if it's
involved in disease," Mr. Baker said.
Initially, as "Foldit" was tested, about 700 players were
given proteins whose ideal structure and shape were already
Last week, the game was opened to the public and included
proteins with unknown shapes. The University of Washington
team presented the game at a gaming conference in Baltimore
on Thursday, and now about 30,000 people have played the
game, which is available on the Internet at "fold.it"
The team plans to track and record what the best players are
doing and refine the game accordingly, Mr. Popovic said.
In the next version of "Foldit," planned for a summer
release, players will be able to design brand new proteins
aimed at neutralizing toxic waste or fighting HIV, Mr. Baker
For instance, he said, players could be presented with the
virus that causes the common cold, along with a protein that
scientists think shows some promise of being able to combat
it. Like scientists, players would be able to alter the
protein's makeup, add or subtract amino acids, and change
its shape to make it fit tightly into the flu virus, like a
jigsaw puzzle piece that could theoretically deactivate the
Ben Sawyer, co-founder of the Games in Health Project, said
scientists and gamers are constantly finding new and
exciting ways of merging their two fields to promote health
During the two-day Baltimore conference, his group heard
from an epidemiologist who was able to glean important
public health information by studying what happened in the
virtual world after a popular video game released a blood
disease into the game.
Games are also being used to motivate people who are in
physical therapy, Mr. Sawyer said.
In the world of protein-folding, Sony, Intel and others
teamed up with Stanford University to develop a program that
uses computers to try to fold proteins. Mr. Baker developed
a similar computer program in 2005.
But "Foldit" takes all of this one step further by
harnessing the brain power of potentially thousands of
people to help solve these protein puzzles, Mr. Sawyer said.
"I think it's well-designed," he said of the new game.
The game was developed by doctoral student Seth Cooper and
postdoctoral researcher Adrien Treuille, both in computer
science and engineering. They worked with Mr. Popovic and
Mr. Baker, along with David Salesin, a professor of computer
University of Washington team members said some people
simply seem to be gifted at solving 3-D puzzles like the
protein shapes — and some are much more capable than
scientists. Mr. Popovic said that in the initial group of
700 players, a few stood out with high scores immediately,
including one person from New Zealand and another from
Mr. Baker said his 13-year-old son, Benjamin, is faster at
folding proteins than he is.
He added, "I imagine that there's a 12-year-old in Indonesia
who can see all this in their head."
The "Foldit" project was funded by the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency, the Howard Hughes Medical
Institute, Microsoft and Adobe Systems, and through
fellowships at Nvidia and Intel.
This Is Your Brain on a
May 12, 2008
If proponents of video and computer games are right, the
generation that grew up honing its hand-eye coordination by
shooting aliens in Halo should be starting to nail real-life
aircraft-carrier landings right about … now. But while
studies show that the games can improve visual and spatial
skills—and that playing violent ones makes it harder to
control anger, especially when someone goads or disses
you—only now are scientists studying the games' overall
effects on players' hearts and minds. Next week, at the
Games for Health Conference in Baltimore, Carmen Russoniello
of East Carolina University will report that three
nonviolent puzzle and word computer games affect heart rates
and brain waves in a way that suggests they might be used
therapeutically, such as for treating high blood pressure or
Russoniello assigned volunteers, ages 19 to 57, to either
search the Web for articles or to play one of three games:
Bejeweled 2, which taps visual and spatial skills; Bookworm
Adventures, in which players make words out of Boggle-like
arrays, and Peggle, a Pachinkolike aim-and-shoot game. After
15 minutes he wired them up to EEGs, which measure brain
waves, and a heart monitor, and then he asked them to fill
out questionnaires about their mood.
Compared with the group that searched for articles, the
heart monitors showed, only Bejeweled (an untimed version)
reduced physiological stress. But with all three, the
players felt less fatigued than before the games, less
"mentally confused," more vigorous, less angry, less
depressed and less mentally tense. The different games
affected each of these to varying degrees—Bejeweled
increased vigor the most, for instance, while Peggle reduced
mental tension the most. EEGs hint at what caused these
feelings: Peggle upped brain waves linked to a desire to
engage with life, while Bejeweled reduced brain waves
associated with avoiding and withdrawing, and Bookworm got
brain waves in sync, a state associated with relaxation.
Now for the caveats, starting with the fact that the games'
maker, PopCap, paid for the study (though Russoniello says
it had no say in the design or data analysis). More
problematic, the data are silent on whether the mood and
brain changes last more than a few minutes; in contrast,
mental training such as meditation seems to bring permanent
beneficial brain changes. The challenge now for videogame
manufacturers itching to make what are essentially health
claims: showing that the games reduce stress and improve
mood better than a good book, a stroll in a garden, a movie
or any other activity that tickles your brain waves.
Gaming Your Way to Fitness
NPR: Morning Edition (Transcript)
May 15, 2008
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
If it were possible for you to get fit in the next few
minutes, these next two reports might do it. In a moment,
we'll find out how two members of our own staff measure up
against a new presidential fitness test. NPR's Allison
Aubrey put them through their paces.
And she'll also report on the exercise you could get in
front of your TV. Video games designed to provide a workout
are becoming big business, so she attended a conference
called Games for Health.
ALLISON AUBREY: There's been a lot of chatter that the
Nintendo Wii motivates families to get up and move around.
Next week, Nintendo releases in the U.S. an even more active
set of games called Wii Fit. One of the games is a hula-hoop
Very good. You look ready. Your shoes are off.
The first player hops on the Wii balance board, where the
game can sense all of his movements. We're in a packed
demonstration hall at the Baltimore Convention Center. The
player is Alastair Thin. He's a Scottish exercise
physiologist attending the convention.
Dr. ALASTAIR THIN (Exercise Physiologist): I know what
exercise is. Ican measure exercise on a bike or treadmill.
AUBREY: But getting your heart rate up with a hula-hoop
game? Well, let's find out. Gillian Laughren(ph) of
Gaming4Health revs up the excitement with her play-by-plays
for virtual characters.
Ms. GILLIAN LAUGHREN (Gaming4Health): Now watch this. People
are throwing hula-hoops at him and he's hula-hooping, and he
has to capture them on his head. There he goes. Will he
catch it? I understand if you put out your arms it helps.
AUBREY: As he ducks and dives, Alastair Thin's performance
begins to attract a crowd.
Ms. LAUGHREN: How many hula-hoops can he wear? He's up to
three. Keeping three in motion.
AUBREY: When Thin hops off the board a few minutes later, he
puts his finger to his wrist to take his pulse.
Dr. THIN: 156.
AUBREY: So your heart rate's 156?
Dr. THIN: That's hard exercise.
AUBREY: So tell me, how do you feel?
Dr. THIN: Yeah, a little bit breathless. (unintelligible)
AUBREY: All right. You started off with a dress shirt on,
now you're down to a t-shirt.
Dr. THIN: I'm not used to this hot weather.
AUBREY: Alastair Thin has a funny name for an exercise
physiologist. He teaches in a much cooler climate of
Edinburgh, Scotland. For his students, the weather can be an
obstacle to outdoor exercise at least part of the year. So
when Wii Fit first hit store shelves in Great Britain last
month, Thin was ready in his exercise lab to test it out. He
bought two game consoles and recruited 11 students to try a
bunch of games. Each of them wore a heart rate band so he
could get measurements on how much of a workout they were
really getting. And he made a video recording, starting with
the Wii step-aerobics game.
Dr. THIN: You can see, a bit like the "Dance Dance
Revolution," that the moves are being up on the screen
AUBREY: But Thin says students had a little trouble
following the game, so their heart rates rose to the
equivalent of a moderate walking pace. By comparison, he
says, six minutes of hula-hooping got the students to the
cusp of a moderately intense cardiovascular workout.
Dr. THIN: The whole thing is it's not just your hips. It's
your arms, your shoulders, your legs, your ankles.
Everything's working there, and you're exercising really
AUBREY: The point of XerGaming is that it's supposed to be
more appealing than just walking or running on a treadmill.
And when Thin surveyed his students they did report that it
What's unclear is whether they would have had the same
experience without other students playing along. Was it the
camaraderie or the competition that kept them going? These
are the questions Thin wants to answer with additional
Dr. THIN: Well, that's why it's very important to get sort
of good measurements as to just how much physical activity's
AUBREY: Convincing studies could help push virtual gaming
into more public spaces such as schools, gyms and recreation
A company called XerGames Technology is already moving in
that direction. At the conference, salesman David Monk
demonstrates a thrilling game with their interactive
Sportwall. It looks like a 12-foot electronic whack-a-mole
Mr. DAVID MONK (XerGames Technology): The sky's the limit on
what you can do with this. Each panel can handle ten to
twelve kids in a relay-style game, and it doesn't take up
any space. It only sticks out about four and a half inches
off the wall.
AUBREY: To demonstrate, Cameron Goldstein and his brother
toss beanbags at different light up targets.
Mr. CAMERON GOLDSTEIN: The target moves around, and the
point is to get where the target is.
AUBREY: The boys are clearly engaged and having fun. But the
question is why do kids need all the lights an action?
What's wrong with good old-fashioned play? I put the
question to Brian Batease. He runs a company called
Lightspace, which makes a virtual dodge ball game.
For starters, he says it's safer.
Mr. BRIAN BATEASE (Lightspace Corporation): I guess nobody
gets hit in the face with a ball with this game, you know.
They get hit in the foot with it by a piece of light, right?
So anything that's going to get kids, you know, off the
couch once a week, it's going to be huge.
Wii Fit, Tipping The Scales on
May 25, 2008
After all the good times we've had together, it's nice to
know my Wii doesn't think I'm fat.
Last week, Nintendo launched an unusual product designed for
use with its fast-selling game console. Called Wii Fit, the
$90 package comes with a game disc and a sturdy, 10-pound
platform that users stand on, shifting their weight from
side to side to control their in-game characters. The device
and its software can also weigh users and calculate body
Nintendo's Wii system is famous for getting people off the
couch to play its tennis and bowling games; now the company
aims to introduce users to yoga moves, ab crunches and
push-ups, all performed atop the new Wii Balance Board, as
the platform is called.
Wii Fit has already proved popular in Japan, where it has
sold 2 million units since its release last year. Design of
the hardware and software was overseen by Shigeru Miyamoto,
the famous Nintendo game designer behind many of the
company's biggest hits, such as the Mario franchise.
Game companies have a long and mostly unsuccessful history
of trying to tie physical activity to video games. The idea
goes back at least 25 years, to the heyday of the Atari 2600
game console, which had a similar-in-spirit device called
the Joyboard. In more recent years, some games designed for
the PlayStation 2 used a special camera to try to "watch"
users' movements as they did aerobics programs with the
One device on the way, from a company called iToys, aims to
motivate kids to move their bodies more in the real world by
offering rewards in the virtual world. As they play and
move, a pedometer records points that can be redeemed in a
virtual world when the device is plugged into a computer.
The device, called ME2, is scheduled for release late this
Ben Sawyer, a co-director of Games for Health, a regular
conference where software developers discuss and show off
game technology that improves health and health care, said
there's a lot to like about Wii Fit.
He said he'd like to see school districts eventually adopt
the system, in the same way that some school districts have
successfully incorporated the popular Dance Dance Revolution
games into exercise and weight-loss programs.
That's a long way off for Wii Fit, he observed. After all,
even if price weren't an issue, Wiis are still notoriously
hard to find. "The biggest strike against it is that there
aren't enough Wiis," he said. "People still can't get one."
Cammie Dunaway, Nintendo of America's executive vice
president of sales and marketing, said other game developers
were already working on games and software that incorporate
the Balance Board. She said the company was still trying to
meet demand for the Wii, but she would not say when the
device would be in ample supply.
There are more than 40 activities packed into the Wii Fit
disc, ranging from skiing and hula hoop games to rowing,
squat and leg-extension exercises. In keeping with the
traditional structure of video games, users can't access
every feature on the disc at first: The more you "play," the
more activities you unlock.
Heck, if you feel like going for a run, you can even stick
the Wii controller in one pocket and jog in place, and off
goes your "Mii" avatar on a circuit run around a virtual
video-game park, populated with all the avatars that you and
your friends have put together on the system.
Never has a game console put itself into your personal
business as aggressively as the Wii does shortly after you
pop in the Wii Fit disc.
"Did you sleep well?" "Did you have breakfast yet?" Log on
in the mornings before work, and you're greeted with a such
questions. Skip a few days, and the Wii Fit gently tries to
make you feel guilty for being a slacker.
Maybe the Wii doesn't think I'm overweight, but it does seem
to regard me as a klutz after I flubbed a few
balance-related tests. I'm not sure I like the implications
I detect in some of its questions: "Do you feel like your
body isn't responding the way you would like it to?" "Do you
find yourself tripping when you walk?"
The software is set up so you can also use it to track any
exercise you're up to when you're away from the Wii; those
worried about privacy can keep their weight fluctuations and
workout habits password-protected.
So far, I have yet to break much of a sweat with the Wii
Fit. As I contort my torso to follow the directions of the
software's mellow yoga instructor guy, he encourages me to
"visualize" my "ideal body" as I focus on my breathing and
Wii Fit is interesting, and I look forward to spending some
more time with it. But if I were to ever do more than just
visualize that ideal body, I think I'd have to start going
to the gym again. The real one.
HEALTH'S GOT GAME FROM
EXERCISE TO MEDICAL TRAINING AIDS, VIDEO GAMES SCORE WHEN IT
COMES TO KEEPING YOU FIT
May 29, 2008
Pulse\ In this medical training video game from Hunt
Valley's BreakAway Ltd., trainees can learn to treat
injuries from explosives or diagnose anthrax. Players can
see the inside of a hospital and walk, flip through charts
and examine patients. They are prompted to check the eyes
and listen to the heart.\ 2. Amazing Food Detective\ This
Kaiser Permanente game takes kids through a virtual mystery
until they uncover the proper things to eat. It shuts off
after 20 minutes and prompts the players to do something
active.\ 3. Lightspace Play\ Lightspace Corp.'s game has
glowing tiles and prompts school kids to jump from square to
square to hit a virtual tennis ball or hockey puck or dodge
a dodgeball or snowball.\ 4. Play Visualizer\ The game from
Hunt Valley's Digital Steam works turns football and other
game tape into three-dimensional action. The Baltimore
Ravens use it so players can watch video versions of
Kids play on "Lightspace Play," which uses a stage that's
just over 9 feet by 9 feet and harks back to the disco era
with its glowing tiles.\ 6. BreakAway Ltd. is targeting
professionals with the virtual medical school it is
developing with "Pulse."
The plane lifts off and is soaring high above the urban
landscape. The sun creeps behind a tall building. Then
suddenly, the sky gets a little darker, and the ultralight
craft isn't alone. Another plane is coming, and it's firing
its weapons.\ This is a Dogfight -- a new computer game by
Electronic Sports, where competitors go head to head in an
effort to shoot each other down.
It's not just another new arcade game. Yes, there is a
screen complete with realistic computer-generated sights and
sounds. But it's hooked up to a stationary bike, and
competitors have to pedal to play.
This is a so-called "healthy game," and the visuals aim to
distract the players from the "drudgery" of cycling in
place, said Joe Dean, the company president and chief
executive. It's one of hundreds of new games that are the
latest weapons in the battle against obesity and other
They are played on computers that have long been
contributors to the sedentary ways of children, who spend
hours at a time sitting behind a screen in pursuit of the
high score. Some game developers, health care companies and
medical researchers now are teaming up to use the joystick's
power for good.
Many new games require players to move to make them work and
are increasingly being used in schools, community centers
and gyms. Other games aimed at education rather than
exercise are being handed out by health care companies to
patients and school kids and by medical institutions to
trainees and first responders.
Together, they broadly comprise the nascent but rapidly
growing healthy games market. The segment may now make up
close to one-third of the nation's $1.5 billion "serious
games" industry, which includes games with some sort of
purpose beyond entertainment like modeling and simulation
for business or the military.
Healthy games are not likely to generate the buzz or record
sales of the traditional video game Grand Theft Auto IV,
which topped $500 million in its first week this month. But
at least one may push them more into the mainstream and grab
more of the $40 billion overall video game market worldwide.
Nintendo's Wii Fit went on sale to individual consumers this
month for about $90 and offers skiing, soccer and other
games to agile players with a footboard.
"The special nature of games is that they motivate you,"
said Ben Sawyer, a Portland, Maine-based technology
developer who launched the Games for Health Project
(gamesforhealth.org) four years ago to assess the
effectiveness of the genre and put on a conference for those
in the field.
"Games have an ease and a sexiness about them," he said.
"Can we actually change people's habits and the health of
at-risk populations through games? It makes sense that we
Sawyer's Games for Health conference brought gaming
professionals to Baltimore this month to learn from each
other, help some find funding for their ideas and let others
show off their equipment.
Dogfight was on display there. Executives, who have opened a
Salt Lake City sales office, were hoping to attract a chain
of gyms to invest in the new technology. It's already an
Another game was Lightspace Play, which uses a stage that's
just over 9 feet by 9 feet and harks back to the disco era
with its glowing tiles. It prompts school kids to jump from
square to square to hit a virtual tennis ball or hockey puck
or dodge a dodgeball or snowball. It's been marketed to
schools and community centers for several years and is
designed to get kids thinking that exercise is fun, said
Katie Miner, Boston-based Lightspace Corp.'s operations
On the health front, video games aren't just for cardio
Digital Steamworks of Hunt Valley has created Play
Visualizer that turns football and other game tape into
three-dimensional action. The Baltimore Ravens use it so
players equipped with special glasses can watch video
versions of themselves throwing passes, tackling opponents
or running for the end zone.
Kaiser Permanente and Humana health care companies showed
games they hope will make learning about disease care and
proper nutrition more engaging. Humana, a gaming conference
sponsor, has been testing the effectiveness of games for
seniors and students.
Kaiser has developed Amazing Food Detective and offered it
to schools. It takes kids through a virtual mystery until
they uncover the proper things to eat. Since the game
doesn't actually get the kids moving, it shuts off
automatically after 20 minutes and prompts the players to do
"We're trying to see what works," said Kaiser spokeswoman
Lorna D. Fernandes. "Childhood obesity is a big problem that
costs everyone. We really need to look at everything."
Hunt Valley's BreakAway Ltd. is targeting professionals with
the virtual medical school it is developing. In Pulse,
trainees can learn to treat injuries from explosives or
diagnose anthrax, which is often mistaken for the flu.
Players can see the inside of a hospital and walk, flip
through charts and examine patients. They are prompted to
check the eyes and listen to the heart, which can be heard
There are plenty of other games and ideas that hold promise
in the health arena, said Chinwe R. Onyekere, a program
officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The
charitable foundation granted $8.2 million over four years
toward Sawyer's four-year-old Games for Health Project.
She said part of the foundation's mission is to help reduce
obesity and other health issues that have been cropping up
in younger Americans. There's no conclusive evidence yet to
show that video games work, she said. But they are so widely
popular that tapping them to help solve health care problems
seems worth a try.
"We're hoping the research shows it works," she said. "And
we're hoping to build a community so they can find each
other and learn from each other."
Douglas Goldstein is convinced healthy games are effective.
He formed iConecto, a company that has launched a Web site
this month called gaming4health .com. It's a database of
more than 100 healthy games and a social networking site for
developers and users. He'd like to make it a distributor of
He sees everyone from kids in school to athletes in training
to regular people at the gym playing healthy games. For now,
Goldstein will focus on making a cohesive industry out of a
bunch of companies trying to individually market or give
away their products.
"There's a need for these games," he said. "If you can get
healthy by playing a fun game, why not do it?"
email@example.com\ \ Games people play\ About 16
percent of Americans exercise on an average day, according
to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest Time Use Survey,
which is available at www.bls.gov/spotlight. Roughly five
times as many people watched television on an average day
during the same time period, from 2003 to 2006.
Here are some other facts from the survey:
The Pacific region had the most regular exercisers, with 20
percent working out on an average day; the South Central
region was the least active, with 13 percent regularly
exercising; and the South Atlantic region, which includes
Maryland, was about average at 15 percent.
People with a bachelor's degree or higher were most likely
to regularly exercise, with 23 percent working out on an
average day. Those with less than a high school diploma were
the least likely, with 10 percent regularly exercising.
Walking was the most popular activity, with 30 percent
choosing it on an average day. Weightlifting was next
popular with 13.1 percent. Other popular activities were
using cardiovascular equipment, swimming, running and
Football, basketball and golf were the most popular sports
for men, while aerobics, yoga and walking were most popular