Computer gaming is now a regular part of life for many people. Beyond just being entertaining, though, it can be a very useful tool in education and in science.

If people spent just a fraction of their play time solving real-life scientific puzzles – by playing science-based video games – what new knowledge might we uncover? Many games aim to take academic advantage of the countless hours people spend gaming each day. In the field of biochemistry alone, there are several, including the popular game Foldit.

In Foldit, players attempt to figure out the detailed three-dimensional structure of proteins by manipulating a simulated protein displayed on their computer screen. They must observe various constraints based in the real world, such as the order of amino acids and how close to each other their biochemical properties permit them to get. In academic research, these tasks are typically performed by trained experts.

Thousands of people – with and without scientific training – play Foldit regularly. Sure, they’re having fun, but are they really contributing to science in ways experts don’t already? To answer this question – to find out how much we can learn by having nonexperts play scientific games – we recently set up a Foldit competition between gamers, undergraduate students and professional scientists. The amateur gamers did better than the professional scientists managed using their usual software.

This suggests that scientific games like Foldit can truly be valuable resources for biochemistry research while simultaneously providing enjoyable recreation. More widely, it shows the promise that crowdsourcing to gamers (or “gamesourcing”) could offer to many fields of study.