Life, the video game

A team of McGill University researchers has come up with a way to make playing video games an entirely productive pursuit.

This is a screenshot that was posted of a relatively simple problem. The goal is to match as many coloured squares in vertical lines as possible

This is a screenshot that was posted of a relatively simple problem. The goal is to match as many coloured squares in vertical lines as possible

MONTREAL — A team of McGill University researchers has come up with a way to make playing video games an entirely productive pursuit.

Computer scientist Jerome Waldispuhl, along with collaborator Mathieu Blanchette, developed a video game similar to the popular puzzle game Tetris — except there’s more to it than just stacking blocks.

The game, called Phylo, involves arranging sequences of coloured shapes that represent human DNA.

The game’s site says that when you play Phylo you are actually engaging in a wide framework to harness the power of many minds working to solve a common problem; multiple sequence alignments.

By analyzing the DNA sequences, scientists are able to gain new insight into the genetic basis of diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cancer. By studying these links biologists may infer shared evolutionary origins, or illustrate mutation events.

The game has enjoyed some popularity, with more than 17,000 people registering online since its November 2010 launch.

“Originally, I think a lot of people came because they are interested in participating in something that contributes to science,” Waldispuhl said in an interview.

“But the goal is really to expand that to casual players. People don’t really need to know that it contributes to science to enjoy it.”

The results of the players’ efforts can be retrieved by scientists from a database on the game’s website. So far, researchers have received more than 350,000 solutions to alignment sequence problems.

The game has already improved understanding of the regulation of 521 genes involved in a variety of diseases, Waldispuhl said.

Waldispuhl views the project as an attempt to combine the powers of the human brain with those of a computer.

There are some calculations that humans do more efficiently than any computer can, he said, such as recognizing and sorting visual patterns.

“As humans, we have evolved to handle visual information very efficiently,” he said.

By looking at the similarities and differences between these DNA sequences, scientists can get insight into genetically based diseases.

For example, one part of the game shows a human and a mouse, and the challenge is to align the nucleotides correctly in a gene connected with familial Alzheimer’s disease.

Once that is completed, the two sequences are compared with that of a dog and a new level of the game starts.

The trick is aligning the nucleotides — their order can’t be changed, but figuring out where along the sequence each one should go is a challenge, especially when one considers less-closely related species.

That kind of intuitive pattern recognition is not something computers are very good at.

This doesn’t mean humans can replace computers. In this instance, machines did a lot of the heavy lifting.

But the problem was the case of misaligned sequences, which the computers weren’t always able to spot.

While computers are best at handling large amounts of messy data, Waldispuhl said humans are able to sort through the coloured blocks representing DNA more quickly.

The genomes in the game were pre-aligned by computers, but parts remained slightly misaligned. As players sort out the puzzle in the game, they are also properly aligning the genomes.

Waldispuhl is hoping the game’s popularity continues to grow, creating a larger collection of data for genetic researchers.

With that in mind, Waldispuhl and his team recently created a version for tablets and smartphones.

“The idea is that it should be like Tetris, where people use it to take a break during the day,” he said.

“I would like them to play this instead of other games, because it’s like recycling the energy we are using.”

Here’s what one gamer noted on the web site for Genspace, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting education in molecular biology:

“I’ve played around with the DNA code responsible for idiopathic generalized epilepsy and already 160 other people attempted to solve the puzzle… 146 people failed.

“And there lies the problem of biology-turned games. You see, unlike regular puzzle games like Bejeweled or Tetris, not everything will fit together with perfect logical coherency.

“Granted, there are a few techniques you can use to treat this like any other game (for example, don’t waste your time moving around single blocks in the beginning stages. Crush them together into single group for maximum points in shortest amount of time), but the fact is not everything will fit together and it can be rather jarring for a beginner to figure out what he/she’s doing right, since there isn’t any satisfying feedback to a ‘correct’ sequence formation.

“It can’t be helped though. This is science, and no one knows the correct answers. They don’t exactly detect themselves and give you feedback. Maybe that’s the whole reason why you should play this game.

“After all, would you play Starcraft if the outcome were predetermined?”

To play the game or learn more about the research, visit

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy
Red Deer clinical research centre participating in plant-based COVID-19 vaccine trial

A Red Deer research centre has been selected to participate in the… Continue reading

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Red Deer jumps to 449 active COVID-19 cases on Sunday

1,516 new cases identified in Alberta

The QEII was closed Sunday morning due to a pole fire. (Photo courtesy City of Red Deer)
UPDATE: QEII near Red Deer reopens

The QEII has been reopened after being closed due to a pole… Continue reading

Innisfail RCMP are investigating a single-vehicle crash that happened west of Bowden on March 21, 2021. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Bashaw RCMP investigate fatal collision in central Alberta

Bashaw RCMP are investigating after a fatal collision Saturday afternoon. Police were… Continue reading

A damaged unicorn statue is shown in a field outside of Delia, Alta. in this undated handout photo. It's not often police can report that a unicorn has been found, but it was the truth Saturday when RCMP said a stolen, stainless-steel statue of the mythical beast had been located in a field not far from where he'd been taken. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Mounties get their unicorn; stolen statue of mythical beast found in Alberta field

DELIA, Alta. — It’s not often police can report that a unicorn… Continue reading

Investigators from the Vancouver Police Department were in Chilliwack Saturday, collecting evidence connected to a double homicide. (file photo)
Police investigate shooting death of man outside downtown Vancouver restaurant

Vancouver police say one man was killed in what they believe was… Continue reading

Dr. E. Kwok administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a recipient at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to start registering people 18 years and older for COVID-19 vaccines

VICTORIA — The British Columbia government says it’s inviting people 18 years… Continue reading

San Jose's Tomas Hertl, center, celebrates with teammates Patrick Marleau, left, and Rudolfs Blacers, right, after Hertl scored a goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild, Friday, April 16, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
Patrick Marleau set to break Gordie Howe’s games record

For Patrick Marleau, the best part about Monday night when he is… Continue reading

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Half of U.S. adults have received at least one COVID-19 shot

WASHINGTON — Half of all adults in the U.S. have received at… Continue reading

People are shown at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, April 18, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Federal government to send health-care workers to Ontario, Trudeau says

MONTREAL — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says federal departments and some Canadian… Continue reading

People cross a busy street in the shopping district of Flushing on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in the Queens borough of New York. Access to the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States is growing by the day. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kathy Willens
Despite COVID-19 vaccines, Americans in D.C. not feeling celebratory — or charitable

WASHINGTON — This might make Canadians jealous of their American cousins for… Continue reading

A man pays his respects at a roadside memorial in Portapique, N.S. on Thursday, April 23, 2021. RCMP say at least 22 people are dead after a man who at one point wore a police uniform and drove a mock-up cruiser, went on a murder rampage in Portapique and several other Nova Scotia communities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Memorial service in Nova Scotia marks one year since mass shooting started

TRURO, N.S. — A memorial service is planned for today in central… Continue reading

In this April 23, 2016, photo, David Goethel sorts cod and haddock while fishing off the coast of New Hampshire. To Goethel, cod represents his identity, his ticket to middle class life, and his link to one the country's most historic industries, a fisherman who has caught New England's most recognized fish for more than 30 years. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
‘It’s more than just a fish:’ Scientists worry cod will never come back in N.L.

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — The latest assessment of Atlantic cod stocks, whose… Continue reading

Most Read