Xbox Science

What if solving nature’s puzzles was entertaining as well as fulfilling? Would you rather play a first-person shooter, or be the first person to discover a gene’s function? Is it possible to do both? This is the challenge that we address in our Xbox Science project. We are exploring the potential of employing game interfaces, game-design principles, and game production approaches for constructing bioinformatics tools. You might ask why?

  1. Set-top Supercomputers. The most powerful computer in most homes today is a video-game console. Today’s machines boast multiple cores and 100+ MFlop performance with high-end graphics. Moreover, at $299, they represent one of the best MFlop per dollar ratios in history.
  2. Most bioinformatics applications stink. Typical bioinformatics tools require their user to be literate in statistics, computer science, and biology. Imagine if, in order to drive a car, you had to simultaneously be a test-driver, mechanic, and combustion engineer. This is what is expected of today’s biologists. Lab software focuses on function and features rather than usability. In contrast, video game manuals are seldom read. Is it possible to build scientific tools that are usable by anyone? Can we make them fun?
  3. Leverage an insatiable resource. Can we harness the minds and reflexes of the billion-plus gamers worldwide to find cures for disease with incentives of being a high scorer rather than securing drug-patent rights? Many of the tasks confronted by biologists amount to combinatorial puzzles, not unlike the game “Bejeweled”. A biologist may spend years searching for patterns within a gene expression array. What if hundreds of gamers joined in, and explored their datasets in parallel?

In these pages we share our experiences in writing video games with a real-world purpose. This includes discussions of the underlying biology, as well as downloadable games that can be played on the XBox-360.

Research Sponsors

NSF IIS 0534580: “Visualizing and Exploring High-dimensional Data”

Microsoft Research Grant