I had written something like this earlier, but it disappeared into the ether with a 500 Error from blogger.com. What follows is a re-creation, doubtless somewhat more organized, but less impassioned than the original.)
I don’t like folding laundry. And I don’t understand folding proteins. But, thanks to Folding@Home I’m now doing my part toward their goal to understand protein folding, protein aggregation, and related diseases. But, it’s not the hidden-bio-geek in me that’s enjoying this. (I doubt even the presence of a hidden-bio-geek in me.) No, it’s the gamer.
While there is nothing game-like to the interface or the application, Folding@Home has many of the trappings of a good game. And I don’t just mean some of their terminology (“points” and “teams”), but the application of those concepts. It’s true that I get a kick out of earning points. But primarily because those points mean something. Let me explain. My primary personal linux box (the one you’re reading this blog from) is a 600 MHz Celeron — as of this writing top of the line machines are approximately 6-7 times faster in terms of clock speed not to mention several architectural improvements. So, no computational powerhouse, but good enough for what I’m having it do. It took most of a week for that machine to finish a single work unit for Folding@Home. A week’s worth of 24/7 computation feels like something substantial to me. Even on my 600MHz box. So, I earned those points.
But having points, even hard-earned ones, by itself is not enough. Not for a game to be good. Those points have to give you bragging rights. I’ve gotta be able to show off my shiny new suit of armor so that you can gaze at me with envy. Well, fortunately for the game under consideration, I not only earned those points, I even get a certificate that I can (among other things) put directly in my blog!
So, we’ve got points and status. That’s good. And, there’s rank within the game itself. That’s helpful, but rank among hundreds of thousands matters mainly to those few at the top. It’s just too big to matter to my 600MHz Celeron-self.
Fortunately, we also have clans or guilds or, in Folding@Home vocab, teams. In Legends of Kesmai (RIP) I was in the Wulf guild. I never played quite enough Half-Life to join a clan, though several co-workers were a fairly formidable force. The only reason I even found out about Folding@Home was a clan leader promoting his clan on a mailing list I’m on. (Sorry, I mean enthusiast promoting his team!) So, I “joined” the Charlottesville Folding Society. And this is good game design too. Because not only do my computing cycles help out, they give props to my clan!
That would have been good, just right there. What makes it great is that we’re ranked WITHIN clan as well. I’m near the bottom, of course. After all, I just started, and did I mention the 600 MHz Celeron? But Charlottesville’s tech-media darling Waldo Jaquith appeard to have started at about the same time. And, perhaps enitely unknown to him, he and I are now in competition. He finished a work unit first and got on the boards early. I only recently finished my first, but it was worth several more points, so I jumped into the lead. He just finished his second, so he’s surpassed me again. But I’ve thrown other clunker machines of mine into the mix. He’ll be in for a rude surpise from me soon, I can tell you! And that’s what makes this fun, and why I’ll continue to donate work units past the first to Folding@Home. I don’t care about doing more work units than MidnightFreak. It’ll never happen, anyway. But… if I can beat Waldo! That’d be cool. I know and like Waldo.
So, congratulations to Folding@Home. The best game I never played.