MET:FoldIt and EteRNA: Crowdsourcing Interactive Online Games for Collaborative Learning

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This page was authored by Micheal Morris and Owen Summers (2014)

The recent development of the online puzzle video games, FoldIt and EteRNA, has demonstrated that the use of digital games, combined with the practice of crowdsourcing, has become a powerful tool for research and learning. Through the creation of these interactive, science-based games, researchers have recognized that crowdsourcing games are not only effective at solving scientific problems, but they also serve as constructivist learning environments for both the players and the creators. As educators, we feel that FoldIt and EteRNA are educational tools that promote authentic, collaborative learning, whose designs can be used as a framework to create similar programs for other learning objectives.

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Screenshot of the crowdsourced, interactive protein folding game FoldIT

Crowdsourced, Interactive Online Games

FoldIt and its Rosetta Origins

FoldIt is an online, interactive, puzzle-solving video game that was developed by University of Washington scientists and program designers David Baker, Seth Cooper, Zoran Popovic, Adrien Treuille, and several other colleagues in Baker's research team (Cooper et al., 2010) . The goal of FoldIt was to design a multiplayer, online game in which the objective was to produce accurate protein structure models through playing a digital game (Burke, 2011). Proper folding of a protein’s amino-acid chain so that it achieves its unique three-dimensional shape is imperative for that protein to carry out its explicit biological function. Although determining the unique peptide sequence for primary protein synthesis has been well understood for some time, how the amino-acid chain folds into its final, functional three-dimensional shape still poses a problem, even with the help of the processing power of computers (Cooper et al., 2010).

Before working on Foldit, David Baker’s previous research project focused on creating the software program, Rosetta@home, which includes multiple algorithms for structure prediction, design, and remodeling of proteins (Rosetta Commons, 2014). The software was designed so that people could watch as the program folded virtual proteins on their computer’s screen while in screensaver mode. However, despite the computer’s computational power, the software frequently made mistakes during protein folding. Many Rosetta users could intuitively see the errors the program was making, but due to the lack of interactivity in the software’s design, they could not help the program fix its mistakes. It was this feedback by Rosetta users which provided Barker and his colleagues with the idea to create an online medium where humans, with their innate spatial reasoning, could work with Rosetta’s protein predicting algorithms to improve proper virtual protein folding (Stanford University, 2012).

There are at least three major design features that have led to the success of FoldIt. First, is the game’s interface that allows players to manipulate the spatial structure of a protein’s amino-acid segments. With the help of Rosetta’s protein-predicting algorithms, users can produce a virtual three-dimensional protein that they believe most resembles the native protein. Second, it allows multiplayer, online communication, so that players have the ability to collaborate and cooperate to solve the protein-folding puzzles. By presenting scientific problems to the online community, thousands of people can work together and contribute to original solutions (Baker, 2010). Third, is the gamification of the program. Adrien Treuille admits himself that until they implemented a leaderboard scoring system to the game, there was a lack of interest in the online, scientific community (Stanford University, 2012). Competition seems to be a key factor built into games that engages people and motivates them to want to perform to a higher standard.

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EteRNA screenshot


Like Foldit, EteRNA is also an interactive puzzle-solving video game, but instead of players trying to solve how virtual proteins fold, the game demands that players conceive a nucleic acid sequence that produces a given RNA molecule. The Stanford University and Carnegy Mellon University designers and scientists responsible for designing the game included many of the FoldIt creators, and therefore both games have many similarities (Markoff, 2011). Both games are accessible online and use crowdsourcing as a means to gather information from a wide assortment of players to help answer fundamental questions about how biological molecules fold.

Despite their similarities, there are two features that are unique to EteRNA. One is that it is a browser-based game, so that users do not have to download a program so that they can play the game. The other is that they built in a weekly competition where players vote on which designs they think are best. The top player designs are then synthesized at Stanford University labs and images resulting from these RNA molecules are then sent to their original player-developers (Burke, 2011). Adrien Treuille, one of the game’s designers, sees the game as "experimental chemistry", in the sense that it is an online design competition where RNA molecules are hypothesized, conceived, and manufactured. As this game is open to anyone who has access to a computer and the Internet, Treuille sees the whole process is akin to “crowdsourcing the scientific method” (Stanford University, 2012).

Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about ExteRNA is that, like FoldIt, many of its thousands of players are nonscientists. To engage players with little to no previous experience in molecular biology, the designers created introductory levels, that through play, taught novices important concepts related to protein folding that they would need for them to be successful while playing the “real” game. Once the novice user is able to reach a certain score by folding virtual RNA molecules correctly, they can move past the introductory levels and play the “real” game. Despite non-scientist users having little science background, many begin to demonstrate skills and ways of thinking attributed to scientists. Through their interactions with various users, Treuille has noted that many have “made up their own esoteric language to talk about things that are not in the ordinary experience of man. And like scientists, they play around to figure out solutions and modify each other’s designs”(Burke, 2011, par. 14).

Learning Applications

Constructivist Learning Environments

From an education perspective, crowdsourced, interactive games, like FoldIt and EteRNA, have revealed that it is not only possible to create, authentic communities of inquiry in an online environment, but that they also serve as an ideal medium for creating a constructivist learning environment (CLE). Many educators and designers of online courses will attest to just how difficult, but important, it is to facilitate and stimulate student interaction to a meaningful level. Garrison & Cleveland-Innes (2005) explain, “Interaction by itself does not presume that one is engaged in a process of inquiry and cognitive presence exists. An educational experience sets a qualitative standard perhaps best reflected by the model of a community of inquiry. A community of inquiry integrates cognitive, social, and teaching elements that go beyond social exchanges and low level cognitive interaction” (p.135).

By crowdsourcing online, interactive collaborative games, like FoldIt and EteNA, have created what Barab and Duffy (2000) would refer to as “communities of practice” within a “situated learning environment”.Through playing these social, interactive games, players from all walks of life are partaking in authentic activities that require them to engage in the cognitive skills and ways of thinking that are required in field of biochemistry. Treuille believes these games have led to the emergence of a new field that he has coined “Interactive Biology”, which he states “has implications not just for games, but for training and education purposes and for how scientists working in these fields look at the phenomena themselves” (Stanford University, 2012). Their success could be attributed to the fact that the design of the games, and the communities that support them, possess key characteristics that are important when trying to create effective learning environments. Motivating the learner, providing scaffolding for support, and integrating key elements to facilitate collaborative interaction within a inquiry-based context are all key attributes of an effective constructive learning environment that are present in these online, interactive puzzle-solving games.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

Games influence learning by increasing motivation (Lepper & Hodell, 1989). According to Lepper, Sethi, Dialdin, and Drake (1997), the ideal state of motivation, in relation to learning, occurs when the learner possesses the optimal balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, known as internalization. Games like FoldIt and EteRNA seem to have been able to find this balance with its players, and since fostering internalized motivation in students can be a daunting task for educators, it is worth investigating how these games have been able to successfully motivate players both extrinsically and intrinsically.

While making the game FoldIt, the creators were unsure if people would actually play it. Adrien Treuille explains, “Whether or not this would work as a game, we really had no idea, and it was a source of great angst. We were worried that this was a terrible game and that nobody would want to play it, so we gave it to a bunch of biochemists and they weren’t terribly excited about it. Then we gave it back to them and put up a leaderboard in it. They could all see each other’s names and what score they got. We had to shut down the game in a week because it was basically bringing all science to a halt” (Stanford University, 2012). The competitive aspect of the leaderboard, and the chance to have their name at the top of it, served as the extrinsic motivation needed to spark people’s interest and get them excited about the game. With this in mind, the creators took extrinsic motivation one step further when they launched their RNA building game EteRNA. They offered players the chance to have their digital RNA designs, selected and used to create actual RNA molecules made by scientists in the lab, and they would even send the players their own copy which could serve as a sort of trophy for their superior design ability. The top-rated RNA designs of every week were selected to be used as models for the Stanford biochemists to synthesize. The creators quickly recognized the value of offering some extrinsic motivation to their players but realized that the rewards do not need to be lavish. As Treuille put it, ”There’s no financial reward for designing an RNA molecule. The reward is a high score and social recognition within the community” (Burke, 2011). Treuille and the other game creators seem to realize that extrinsic motivation alone is not what drives people to play their games, but they recognize its place in maintaining and increasing their player base : “We’re working on a method to have the players create and publish their own scientific hypotheses in an open access journal” (Burke, 2011).

Intrinsic motivation is not as easily measured as extrinsic motivation and it can also be more difficult to attain; however, FoldIT and EteRNA seem to have this figured out as well. The puzzles are cognitively challenging, but not too difficult to experience progress, so the creators have found the right balance of challenge vs the potential success. This balance intrinsically motivates players by giving them the confidence to know they can complete a level but without making it too easy which would lead to boredom. This reflects the idea that “[i]ntrinsic motivation is stimulated by tasks of optimal novelty and difficulty” (Shunk, 2012, p.264). The players also seem to be intrinsically motivated by the fact that they are contributing directly to the worldwide scientific community. The players are aware that humans can solve visual protein riddles much faster than computers are capable of, and that just by playing the game, they are contributing to a vast range of scientific research that one day may be used to cure diseases, like HIV. This helps to stimulate the intrinsic rewards as highlighted by Shunk (2012), which include feelings of competence and control, self-satisfaction, and pride, and these provide the basis for attaining intrinsic motivation.

Instructional Scaffolding

Both FoldIt and EteRNA are games that have been designed to harness the power of instructional scaffolding; the process of providing assistance to support learning. Scaffolding has been shown to be an effective strategy to facilitate learning (Brush & Saye, 2002; Banaszynski, 2000; Applebee & Langer, 1983). The idea of Instructional scaffolding is an extension of Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZDP). According to Vygotzsy (1978), the ZDP is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under guidance. As Schunk (2012) states, “[w]hen peers work on tasks cooperatively, the shared social interactions can serve an instructional function.” These games apply this process by creating an environment where more-experienced players can help support less-experienced players fold and construct virtual biochemical molecules. Three design features of these games that allow instructional scaffolding to take place are:

1. The synchronous “chatbox”.

2. The asynchronous messaging system, forums, and blogs.

3. The program’s interface.

The synchronous “chatbox” that is a part of FoldIT and EteRNA allow for formal and informal real-time discussions to take place between all the members of the game’s community. The textbox appears in the corner of the game’s screen and allows players to view and post on the discussions that are taking place between all the members of the game who are currently online. Often, the real-time discussions among participants are informal, and do not focus on the logistics of solving the game’s puzzles. Although this type of communication may not directly relate to solving the games’ puzzles, these open, informal discussions have been shown to strengthen the ties between members of online communities (Bette, 2004). Many of the conversations in the “chatbox”, however, are directly related to solving the biochemical puzzles and many players use them for scaffolding purposes. Less-experienced players who are having difficulties solving the puzzles can type in questions into the “chatbox” and expect to get real-time suggestions on how to solve the game’s problems from more experienced players. This is a clear example of instructional scaffolding from and, as Vygotsky puts it, “more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.86).

There are also several asynchronous, collaborative tools used in these games that promote instructional scaffolding, such as player-to-player messaging, player forums, and blogs. Another feature built into the “chatbox” mentioned above is that it allows players to send personal messages to other members in the community to ask for advice or assistance. This helps those who do not want to make their inquiries public or would rather seek the advice from a particular member with whom they may have a relationship with. A screenshot application, another well-designed feature of the “chatbox”, assists players, as it provides a picture of the problem they are trying to solve, thereby giving players more accurate information about the problem at hand. This facilitates the scaffolding process. The game also provides members with access to a player forum. The forum serves as an instructional scaffolding tool, since it allows members to post ideas and knowledge they have gained about different aspects of the game for other players to read and comment on. Like the forums, the game also has a link to blogs, which provides players with resources, such as videos and texts, to help players learn more about the theories behind the game. This access to information facilitates the learning process band offers scaffolding for players as it guides guide them in their journey of becoming more knowledgeable members of the community. This form of peer collaboration is one that educators often strive to include in their learning environments, but doing so effectively can be difficult to obtain. Here it is happening naturally, and it serves as evidence to support de Castell & Jenson’s (2003) claim that ”the gaming culture encourages and enables solidarity beyond/outside the game (chat rooms, bulletin boards, etc.) with the player, not the teacher or program, having autonomy over the interaction”.

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FoldIT screenshot showing the program's built-in scaffolding tool

Besides having members of the community assist novice players, the design of the game’s interface itself acts as a scaffolding tool. FoldIt and EteRNA are very much like electronic performance support systems, which are self-contained online systems designed “to support users and increase their performance by providing knowledge about a given task in a ‘just-in-time’ fashion-while they are actually working on it” (Cagiltay, 2006). The games are designed in such a way that when players first begin, they need to work through several tutorial levels. These levels are designed so that the program, through text and visual supports, teaches new players the relevant physics and chemistry concepts behind the game (Burke, 2011). As the players learn with the help of program to construct and fold the virtual biochemical molecules correctly, they are awarded points. Once a certain point threshold is reached, it unlocks higher levels for the players to access. Since players need to achieve a certain number of points before they attempt more difficult puzzles, it reduces the likelihood that novice players will become frustrated. Many video games use this form of computer-assisted scaffolding to assist players in the learning process and it demonstrates some unique relationships humans are developing with machines.

Crowdsourced games as a community of inquiry and discovery

The players of FoldIt and EteRNA engage in discovery, or problem-based, learning in which they are collaboratively using inductive reasoning to not only solve problems within the game, but also to assist the designers with fixing errors and inconsistencies within the games themselves.

The creators explain that FoldIt was designed to resemble more of a toy than an actual game. Adrien Treuille provides an explanation for this, “a game has rules, but a toy is just something you want to play with. Even if you didn’t know the rules, you still want to wiggle it around and see how it works. When they see [the protein molecule], they can intuit and fold the protein into the most stable shape just by looking at it and by thinking about it and by playing with it” (Stanford University, 2012). Although the designers were not aware of it, they were harnessing the effectiveness of using simulations for discovery learning. Treuille explains, “The moment we gave the game to the players, they started using it in ways that were unexpected; they were good at things we didn’t expect and bad at things we didn’t expect, and that changed the kind of science we were doing around these games, and that changed the kind of science the scientists were working on" (Stanford University, 2012). The game designers were witnessing “how members of a learning community both support and challenge each other, leading to effective and relevant knowledge construction" (Anderson, 2008, p.51). The games serve as an ideal platform for creating a community of inquiry. This is supported by de Jong and Joolingen’s (1998) research on using simulations for discovery learning: “simulations were more effective than traditional instruction in inculcating students’ deep (intuitive) cognitive processing” (p.200). The success of FoldIt and EteRNA demonstrate just how effective using simulations can be for facilitating discovery learning.

When EteRNA was released in 2011, players began digitally creating RNA molecules. The game's creators’ plan was to use these digital designs to create real RNA molecules in the lab and send them back to the players. Unfortunately, despite looking like stable shapes on the computer, none of the digitally created RNA designs folded into stable shapes when synthesized in the lab. Discouraged, and unable to find a solution in their problem, the game designers turned to the community of players for help. They allowed the players to see all of the game data and source code in hopes that they could determine why their designs were failing to create stable molecules in the lab. The result was the collaboration of hundreds of players coming together to form a true community of inquiry. The players sorted through thousands of lines of code and an immense amount of data.

The players discussed their mistakes and revised their strategies and 6 months after its release, the community solved the errors and began creating designs that formed stable RNA molecules in the lab. The creators were shocked by what the community had accomplished saying, “It sent chills down our spine- the players had learned how to fold RNA” (Stanford University, 2012). Unknowingly, the game creators had established an ideal scenario and environment for discovery learning to occur because the players were provided with the appropriate tools (the interface and discussion platforms) and baseline information (the data and source code) to acquire new knowledge through problem solving, formulating rules, and testing hypotheses (Bruner, 1961). This reveals not only how powerful crowdsourcing can be, but also what can be achieved by a community of inquiry when they have access to the right tools in an environment that permits authentic discovery learning.

Additional Resources

Below are links to EteRNA's and FoldIT's websites where you can register and play.

1. EteRNA: Played by Humans. Scored by Nature.

2. FoldIT: Solve Puzzles for Science.


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