This is a collaborative STS research project on crowd sourcing in biology; more specifically, the project examines the use of collaborative games and puzzles to solve problems in biochemistry and molecular genetics, such as determining the structure of a protein molecule using a protein-folding game (in this case, FoldIt). Two such crowd-sourcing games, FoldIt and EteRNA, will be the focus of this project. These games are research tools that harness the knowledge of crowds, including those who are not professionally trained in biochemistry or genetics as well as those who are; to ensure the widest possible user-base, these technologies embed basic biochemical principles into their computational function and leave to the users the task of playfully undertaking the trail and error processes that are the essence of deciphering the three-dimensional structure of a protein or a nucleic acid.
The primary STS research goal is to examine the socio-technical architecture of FoldIt and EteRNA to gain new knowledge about the emergent processes of crowd knowledge and scientific discovery in networked computer gaming platforms. Systems that bring together information communication technologies, game theory, and scientific practice/knowledge with expert and non-expert know-how give STS researchers a unique opportunity to study how technical systems designers create a particular framework for understanding complex science, for communicating that knowledge, and for incentivizing participation and scientific discovery. The empirical component of the project is to characterize the socio-technical elements of these platforms as they configure scientific knowledge, communication and participation/play in their attempts to solve scientific problems. The theoretical component will develop theories from the empirical work that explain how the unique epistemological practices framed in these types of systems translate into discovery and knowledge.
The results of this study will contribute to STS subfields that interrogate the practice of science both in the laboratory and in a more public venue, such as the online collaborative game platform. It also has the potential to contribute to fields of communication, information studies, and game studies in its theorizing about computer mediated communication, the politics of platforms, and the role of gaming systems and practice as epistemological endeavors. The findings are transferable to broader audiences such as game designers and scientists whose communities will be able to use the findings to inform the design of current and future crowd-science collaborative game platforms.