'Biotic' video games: Play with microorganisms

Stanford develops Biotic Pinball, POND PONG, and a soccer game called Ciliaball, in which a player's actions influence the behavior of living microorganisms in real time.

You may have heard of Fold-It, which involves different approaches to folding proteins, and EteRNA, which lets players propose new molecular structures for ribonucleic acids (RNA). While these are conceptual exercises that can influence future research, a new set of games out of Stanford takes these types of games one step further.

Stanford researcher Ingmar Riedel-Kruse and his lab group have developed such games as Biotic Pinball, POND PONG, and a soccer game called Ciliaball that involve players actually interacting with living microorganisms.

"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," says Riedel-Kruse, an assistant professor of bioengineering. "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."

To determine whether they could design biotic games at all, the researchers stuck to more primitive, basic game concepts. They came up with eight games that fit into three categories: interaction with molecules, single cells, or colonies of single cells.

The hardware is pretty straightforward. A small camera transmits live images of the paramecia as they swim about, responding to changes in the polarity of an electrical field applied to the fluid chamber by the player's laptop, with the "game board" superimposed on the image of the paramecia. A microprocessor tracks movement and keeps score.

In some games, such as PAC-mecium, the player controls the polarity of a mild electrical field applied across the fluid chamber, which influences the direction the paramecia move. In Biotic Pinball, the player injects occasional whiffs of a chemical into the fluid, causing the paramecia to swim in certain directions.

The molecular level game, called PolymerRace, involves the laboratory technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), an automated process by which researchers make millions of copies of an organism's DNA in as few as two hours. The player is linked to the output of a PCR machine that is running different reactions simultaneously, and can bet on which reactions will be run fastest.

The third type of game involves colonies of yeast cells. Players literally smell the colonies to try to distinguish between them based on bread-vinegar-like scents.

Riedel-Kruse acknowledges that for some players there have been ethical issues, but stresses that these organisms lack brains and the capacity to feel pain: "We are talking about microbiology with these games, very primitive life forms...These games could be a good tool to stimulate discussions in schools on bioethical issues."

The games are presented in a paper published this month in the 10th anniversary issue of Lab on a Chip.