Nick Wingfield in The New York Times:
Zoran Popović knows a thing or two about video games. A computer science professor at the University of Washington, Dr. Popović has worked on software algorithms that make computer-controlled characters move realistically in games like the science-fiction shooter “Destiny.” But while those games are entertainment designed to grab players by their adrenal glands, Dr. Popović’s latest creation asks players to trace lines over fuzzy images with a computer mouse. It has a slow pace with dreamy music that sounds like the ambient soundtrack inside a New Age bookstore.
The point? To advance neuroscience.
Since November, thousands of people have played the game, “Mozak,” which uses common tricks of the medium — points, leveling up and leader boards that publicly rank the performance of players — to crowdsource the creation of three-dimensional models of neurons. The Center for Game Science, a group at the University of Washington that Dr. Popović oversees, developed the game in collaboration with the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a nonprofit research organization founded by Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, that is seeking a better understanding of the brain. Dr. Popović had previously received wide attention in the scientific community for a puzzle game called “Foldit,” released nearly a decade ago, that harnesses the skills of players to solve riddles about the structure of proteins. The Allen Institute’s goal of cataloging the structure of neurons, the cells that transmit information throughout the nervous system, could one day help researchers understand the roots of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and their treatment. Neurons come in devilishly complex shapes and staggering quantities — about 100 million and 87 billion in mouse and human brains, both of which players can work on in Mozak.