This was first posted:01/09/2014 here

Gamification is currently peaking on Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies. Typical during this phase is that some companies take action, whereas many do not. Within drug discovery there are, logically, few examples of successful implementations. The naive idea of this blogpost is to change that…wishful thinking perhaps. For once, like any other new trend, the next phase in the hype cycle is the “trough of disillusionment” where many examples of poor implementations will follow. In addition, the power of gaming is not yet fully understood, and gamers are sometimes seen as “wasting their time” or not “living in real life”. However, playing games can be seen as a happiness engine (if voluntary participation) providing constant rewards at a difficulty level we (often) just can master, unlike real life. When designed correctly, gamification has proven to be successful in engaging people to change behaviours, develop skills and solve problems, in many different areas. To name one specific example, Nike+ has turned fitness into a game, designed to solve motivational issues when it comes to running. Nike+ has now as many as 18 million members worldwide.

To back up a little, computer and video games have come a long way since the days of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, and so have those who play them. Today’s games are enjoyed by players all ages and backgrounds. According to the iconic game-designer Jane McGonigal, the average young American will have spent more than ten-thousand hours playing video or computer games by the age of 21. This corresponds to the entire time spent in elementary school (1thto the 9th grade) taught all other subjects, in Sweden, where similar gaming patterns are assumed. For those of you familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s ten-thousand-hours of practise theory, the obvious conclusion is that these youngsters will not just be good gamers; they will be exceptionally good gamers. Hence, we will soon have an entire generation possessing outstanding technical skills at the same thing – gaming. What a human resource! Not to be confused with human resources management.

In her superb book “Reality is broken” McGonigal describes that gamers are exceptionally skilled at one central thing – collaboration. Collaboration may be described as the collective effort of achieving a joint goal and/or joining forces. It’s about creating something that would not be possible to do alone. To me, this sounds a lot like a drug discovery project, as well as many other types of projects of course.

Nike+ and EteRNA both use game design techniques in a non-gaming context. When playing EteRNA, one can interact with thousands of other players with the goal to improve computer models predicting RNA folding.

Within medicine there are games helping patients taking their pills in time, and within drug discovery the most well-known gamification examples are probably Foldit, and a Facebook game about drug discovery called ‘Syrum’. The latter certainly did not engage me (not realistic, not user-friendly and not collaborative). There’s also EteRNA. Similar to Foldit, EteRNA engages users to solve puzzles related to the folding of RNA molecules. It’s really quite cool!

There are of course endless of opportunities to successfully implement gamification within drug discovery. The world is running out of oil, as well as new drugs; there is a serious game called World Without Oil which was created to call attention to and engineer solutions to a possible near-future global oil shortage. One wishful idea would be to copy the WWO game1and design it towards a massive collaborative effort to address the decline in developing new drugs. Interestingly, copying is not frowned upon in the gaming business, it’s rather the opposite.

In many ways computer-aided drug design is similar to (serious) gaming – it fulfils many of the criteria required. In fact, there’s an example going back all the way to the early eighties,2demonstrating a computer game very much like today’s compound library enumeration tools (combined with a prediction). Not too different to my day-to-day job. Although there has been progress since then (e.g. mobile apps3), one can certainly leverage on game techniques even further.

The software does not all have to run on iPads or the new PS4, and include badges and leaderboards, but to reach the next level they need to be much more collaborative and intuitive. Capish?! Do you hear that all my favorite software vendors? – let’s make reality even more fun!

1. The WWO game’s tagline is “Play it – before you live it.

2. Meisenheimer,J.L. ”Design-a-drug: A medicinal chemistry computer game, J. Chem. Educ., 1982, 59, 600

3. “Mobile apps for chemistry in the world of drug discovery”, Drug Discov Today. 2011,16, 928-939