Most everyone loves a good puzzle game, and these days there’s an abundance of brain teasers available to us in multiple formats. Crosswords and Sudoku can still be found in your newspaper, but PC, online, and smartphone puzzles have exploded in recent years. Recently, I’ve spent many hours trying to level up in Candy Crush Saga (I’m stuck on level 102). But for me, the best puzzle games are ones that teach science in fun clever ways without making you feel like you’re learning a lesson.
Two of my favorites show you how to design rockets and fly them to planetary bodies: Simple Rockets and Kerbal Space Program (with fun names like “smoon” or “Mun” as known in each respective game). These games are designed to run on your smartphone, tablet, or PC. One of my favorites I remember playing in middle school in the late ‘90s, “The Incredible Machine” challenged you to create the most elaborate Rube Goldberg device imaginable. The new “Contraption Maker” made by the same team will satisfy your urges for elaborate designs for simple problems.
Best of all, puzzle games can do more than just teach what’s already known about science, they can help researchers refine and improve their own research, and generate new science. Scientists have put our basic desire for new puzzles to use previously in projects like FoldIt where citizen scientists are challenged with folding proteins.
A newer science puzzle game I’m itching to start playing is designed to help scientists understand how RNA folds. This work was described last week in a report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Scientists from Carnegie Mellon and Stanford Universities developed “EteRNA”, a puzzle game designed for citizen scientists to play. The question was simple; can gamers learn the basic rules of RNA pairing and folding and generate rules that would outperform algorithms and computer-generated models? The answer was yes.
EteRNA first teaches users the basics of RNA. RNA is made of nucleotides; G, A, U, C. G pairs with C, U with A and G:C pairs are strongest. With those basic rules in mind, more complex target structures can be made. Participants designed structures based on known rules first, and then on ever more complex structures. Shapes included loops, stem-loops, crosses, stars, and branches.
Each week, a new target structure was proposed and players would have to design their own sequences that could fold into the desired shape. Those sequences that were voted as the best by other players were synthesized and tested in the lab to determine if they would fold as predicted. These challenges led to 40 contributions to RNA design rules that will help future researchers.
Games like FoldIt and EteRNA open up a new area for both players and scientists alike, and crowd-sourcing science questions could be an advantage in many other fields. Vast amounts of data are generated by scientists every day. Deducing the patterns is always challenging, but if you can make a game out of it, you’ll have a huge population of people looking for that next puzzle willing to help.
 Lee, Jeehyung, et al. “RNA design rules from a massive open laboratory.”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2014): 201313039.