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Why is the Myelin Repair Foundation Playing a Game?

Posted May 21 2010 10:44am

Breakthroughs. Innovation. Novel. For many these words are just concepts, but not at the Myelin Repair Foundation (MRF.)  In 2002, we embarked upon a very innovative and radical mission. Millions of people are suffering with MS around the world without an effective treatment, and the MRF was formed to solve this problem. The solution was not an easy one, however, which is probably why the problem has remained since the disease was first recognized in 1868.

Scott Johnson, President and Founder of the MRF, came up with the solution: pull together a team of the most brilliant scientists in the field of myelin repair and ask them to develop a drug target to treat MS within five years. This was unheard of and a radical way of going about doing research. The results, however, are stunning.

The MRF has successfully challenged the way medical research is being done—and we believe that the model is having a significantly positive impact on the field—but we want to push the boundaries of innovation in medical research even further. We want to help generate solutions to accelerate drug discovery and development in all areas of medical research, for all diseases, and all patients.

That is why the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) recently granted the MRF an investment of $189,000. Nancy Barrand, Senior Program Officer on the pioneer portfolio fund at the RWJF, explains that the investment was made to “organize two virtual forums to engage innovators both inside and outside the medical research field to explore ideas and strategies like the MRF model that could lead to more effective and efficient ways to fund and conduct research.”

The MRF is working with Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, CA to develop this virtual forum, or game. The game will use “crowd sourcing” technology to discuss solutions to problems that currently limit the development of patient treatments.

Jane McGonigal, Ph.D., game designer and Director of Games Research and Development at the Institute for the Future (ITFT), believes people that play games, or “gamers,” have the capability to solve the world’s most difficult problems. Unlike most parents, she recommends spending more time in front of video games in order to accomplish great things in the real world.

Dr. McGonigal’s theory is summarized in her twenty-minute Ted talk . She believes that it is imperative to harness gamer qualities like “blissful productivity, “desire for epic meaning,” and “urgent optimism” to solve the world’s biggest problems.

The game will be played by approximately 300 participants in August or September and will include a diverse cross-section of participants. According to Carol Menaker, Director of Communications at the MRF, this is a “unique way of having a broad-based conversation on a topic we think is very important.”

At the MRF we know collaboration is crucial to solving any major problem, and isn’t open-source the ultimate form of collaboration? As Dr. McGonigal says, “games challenge players to tackle real-world problems, through planetary-scale collaboration.”

A look back at a recent breakthrough in history…

Open-source innovation has resulted in some of the most dramatic and important changes in our culture. Take computing and the Internet, for instance; these technologies were discovered almost accidentally yet have had an unimaginable impact on the lives of every person in every country.

In the May 2010 edition of Wired magazine, Steven Levy catches up with “coders, visionaries, and hygiene-challenged nerds who were hatching our digital world” 25 years ago when he wrote Hackers. In the Wired article, “Geek Power: How Hacker Culture Conquered the World,” he explains that no one, especially the computer geeks themselves, had any idea how their discoveries would change the world.

“When I embarked on my project,” Levy writes, “I thought of hackers as little more than an interesting sub-culture. But as I researched them, I found that their playfulness, as well as their blithe disregard for what others said was impossible, led to the breakthroughs that would define the computing age.” Furthermore, he states, “most of them did it simply for the job of pulling off an awesome trick.”

Doesn’t this sound a lot like playing a game? Twenty-five years ago Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak were not working for companies that told them what they had to achieve. Nor were their goals financial or market-driven. Clearly, Hackers shared many gamer qualities like “blissful productivity, “desire for epic meaning,” and the “urgent optimism” that Dr. McGonigal observes in the gaming culture today.

We believe that creating a gaming environment is a potential way to facilitate breakthroughs on par with those of the computer hackers 25 years ago.

We will be announcing how to participate toward the end of the summer.  Sign up for the newsletter to receive notification about how to participate.

What do you think about gaming? Do you play yourself? Or if you have children, do you allow them to play?

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