I've seen in multiple articles about Foldit at this point that the game is supposedly like 3D Tetris for proteins.
But y'know what I think? It's a misnomer, and false advertising. And for those who aren't familiar with gaming trends, comparing games to one-another is common but can often be super inaccurate. The whole "[Difficult game] is the Dark Souls of [genre, series]" memery is already bad enough to hear on a weekly basis, but this "Foldit is Tetris for Proteins" rubs me the wrong way more and more every time I hear it and I think the game should either be compared to more relevant titles or described as its own beast entirely.
Tetris is a action puzzle game known for its fast paced, highly engaging gameplay that involves rotating and placing falling blocks together to form complete lines. I can see where the comparison stems from, mainly from the players having to arrange geometric formations in a proper order. Take that, entropy.
But when I would describe Foldit, the way it comes out off the top of my head is really just: Foldit is a protein sandbox simulator where players can manipulate the shape and composition of protein chains to find high-scoring solutions for open-ended puzzles.
There's huge contrasts in those two descriptions! For one, the engagement factor. Hand-folding only takes up the first bit of time and there's hardly any visual or audio feedback when something's going right. In fact, it's impossible to 100% accurately tell if something's going right; the early hand folding could lead to a flawed solution after recipe churning. Not to mention, with the bigger puzzles the game chugs hard in some cases, especially when new players don't know or aren't comfortable with turning off visual elements to reduce lag. Tetris in contrast is high speed, low drag, all skill, all the time.
There *is* a definitive failure state in Tetris: the filling of the matrix and a tetromino being unable to enter the playing field. Foldit doesn't necessarily have a failure state: we don't run out of moves or anything since that would be tying one hand behind our back when we're trying to make scientifically significant solutions (except for, of course. the sketchbook puzzles). Sure we could reset the puzzle, but this doesn't necessarily constitute a great failure state at all really. The ultimate failure state in Foldit is really just a puzzle expiring, and there's not nearly as much fanfare as when a Tetris matrix is overflowing with misplaced blocks.
And then there's multiplayer: Action puzzle versus puzzle sandbox/simulation. If you say Tetris multiplayer I'm thinking a one vs. one duel where every line sends a row of garbage blocks at their opponent. It's fun to watch, nail biting if they're equally matched in skill, and easy to follow. Foldit multiplayer is cooperative and competitive, but on a much slower time scale, and not nearly as exciting in the short term as Tetris. Oh boy, a recipe found 3 more points of score optimization, woo hoo. Sure the leaderboard is updated in real time, but we're nowhere near Tetris levels of hype.
So what do we compare Foldit to? There's not many games I can think of off the top of my head that really fit the bill that are as easy to recognize as Tetris, which isn't necessarily a good or bad thing. Puzzle sandbox and simulation brings to mind Factorio, Opus Magnum, and certain Minecraft modpacks, but these games focus on a sort of production line thinking. There's always physics simulating games/sandboxes, like Garry's Mod, Poly Bridge, and Besiege. The latter 2 of that list look for optimized solutions to relatively smaller puzzles in comparison to Foldit, where they can score based on parts used, time taken for simulation to run, etc. Solution optimization in games happens naturally as a form of emergent gameplay, but these games that I've listed can put a little more emphasis on it than most.
Another thing too: Foldit players don't necessarily get to see their proteins in action. They're just...there. In stasis. I understand that we probably don't have an enzymatic animation that we could do in Foldit and wiggling is the closest thing we're gonna get to "Run simulation," but the only feedback that stuff is working is the absence of clashing/voids and bonding which translates into the small, non-emphasized score display at the top. In other sandboxes you'd get to see projectiles flying through the air, a custom built space ship taking fire and dishing it right back, or other player-created solutions doing something. In fact, now that I think of it, the whole point of score in Foldit is stability; one of the very things that players are seeking is literally nothing happening when wiggle is turned on at full CI, which of course you could just get from one wiggle pass. But what ends up setting apart the higher scoring solutions from the freshly wiggled one? Little of that is super apparent in game, at least.
Would I say any of those games I listed are a definitive comparison? Probably not. This is why Foldit needs its own working description of the game. The most concise one I can think of is "Foldit is an open-ended 3D puzzle sandbox where players tinker with unideal proteins to stabilize them." A game does not necessarily need to be compared to another game for people to understand what it is. Reference points are nice, but people in the gaming sphere got rapidly sick of difficult games being touted as "the Dark Souls of [genre or series]" just because Dark Souls is difficult to most new players. If we skip the false comparisons, we can give a more accurate first impression of the game as it actually is: A sandbox for brilliant minds to flourish.