Living Cells Used to Create 'Biotic' Video Games



The digital revolution has triggered a wild proliferation of video games, but what of the revolution in biotechnology? Does it have the potential to spawn its own brood of games? Stanford physicist Ingmar Riedel-Kruse has begun developing "biotic games" involving paramecia and other living organisms. He hopes the games lead to advances in education and crowd-sourcing of laboratory research while helping to raise the level of public discourse on bio-related issuesUsing living organisms, the group created three games that mimic some classic video games.

Video game designers are always striving to make games more lifelike, but they'll have a hard time topping what Stanford researcher Ingmar Riedel-Kruse is up to. He's introducing life itself into games.

Riedel-Kruse and his lab group have developed the first video games in which a player's actions influence the behavior of living microorganisms in real time -- while the game is being played.

These "biotic games" involve a variety of basic biological processes and some simple single-celled organisms (such as paramecia) in combination with biotechnology.

The goal is for players to have fun interacting with biological processes, without dealing with the rigor of conducting a formal experiment, said Riedel-Kruse, an assistant professor of bioengineering.

"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," he said.

"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 lay person could really be involved in and make substantial contributions. This approach is often referred to as crowd-sourcing."

Applying their lab equipment and knowledge to game development, Riedel-Kruse's group came up with eight games falling broadly into three classes, depending on whether players directly interact with biological processes on the scale of molecules, single cells or colonies of single cells.

The results of their design efforts are presented in a paper published in the 10th anniversary issue of Lab on a Chip (the first issue of 2011), published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The paper is available online now.

Initially, Riedel-Kruse said, the researchers just wanted to see whether they could design such biotic games at all, so this first round of development produced fairly simple games.

"We tried to mimic some classic video games," he said. For example, one game in which players guide paramecia to "gobble up" little balls, a la PacMan, was christened PAC-mecium. Then there is Biotic Pinball, POND PONG and Ciliaball. The latter game is named for the tiny hairs, called cilia, that paramecia use in a flipper-like fashion to swim around -- and in the game enables kicking a virtual soccer ball.

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