Living microorganisms used to make video games

A Stanford University researcher has combined biology and video games to create a biotic gaming experience.

Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, a physicist and assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, has developed a set of video games that utilize living cells to imitate classic games like PacMan and Pinball.

The biotic games incorporate living cells like paramecia, which are single-celled organisms, with video games in order to allow everyday people to participate in experiments and learn more about biological processes.

“We hope that by playing games involving biology of a scale too small to see with the naked eye, people will realize how amazing these processes are and they’ll get curious and want to know more,” said Riedel-Kruse. “The applications we can envision so far are on the one hand educational, for people to learn about biology, but we are also thinking perhaps we could have people running real experiments as they play these games. That is something to figure out for the future, what are good research problems which a person could really be involved in and make substantial contributions. This approach is often referred to as crowd-sourcing.”

The biotic gaming experience allows the user to control the actions of living microorganisms in real time by playing video games. There are a total of eight games that fall into three categories, and the three categories are whether a user is interacting with processes concerning single cells, colonies of single cells, or molecules.

The user controls the living microorganism with a controller, like most video games. In paramecia-related games, the paramecia is in a small fluid chamber in front of a camera that sends live images to a video screen with a game board placed over the image of the paramecia. The movements of the paramecia and the score are kept by a microprocessor.

Some of the games include PAC-mecium, which resembles PacMan in that paramecia eats little balls, Biotic Pinball, Ciliaball, and POND PONG. In Pac-mecium, the polarity of a mild electrical field is applied across the chamber of fluid, and is controlled by the user’s controller.

Other games, such as biotic pinball, work by injecting a chemical into the fluid causing the paramecia to swim in different directions. PolymerRace, which is a horse race-inspired game, consists of a user being linked to a PCR machine’s output, which is running different reactions at the same time. Users then bet on which reactions will run the quickest.

“We are talking about microbiology with these games, very primitive life forms,” said Riedel-Kruse. “We do not use any higher-level organisms. Since multiple test players raised the question of exactly where one should draw this line, these games could be a good tool to stimulate discussions in schools on bioethical issues.”

The next step is to use research from different scientific fields to create new educational video games.

“We would argue that modern biotechnology will influence our life at an accelerating pace, most prominently in the personal biomedical choices that we will be faced with more and more often,” said Riedel-Kruse. “Therefore everyone should have sufficient knowledge about the basics of biomedicine and biotechnology. Biotic games could promote that.”

This study was published in Lab on a Chip.

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