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"Pac"-mecium: Video gamers interact with protozoa

Lisa Grauer

To get a high score in these games, players must manipulate the behavior of microorganisms with a joystick.

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Drawing inspiration from some classic arcade video games such as PacMan and Pong, Stanford University researchers have designed several games in which a player’s actions influence the behavior of living microorganisms in real time. These games could be used to improve education and perceptions within the field of biological sciences.

Biotic games inspired by classic video games: Enlightenment, Ciliaball, PACmecium, and Microbash. Source: YouTube

Predicated on the notion that video games could also be used in a bioengineering context, a team led by Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, assistant professor of synthetic biology in Stanford’s Bioengineering Department, developed the aptly coined “biotic games.”

“Initially, I didn’t know what these games should look like or what they could be good for,” said Riedel-Kruse. “I just thought it would be interesting to explore these questions—first by trying to create the games, then seeing if they could be useful in some way.”

Players use a game controller to interact with a colony of Paramecium—a motile protozoa commonly used for research and teaching purposes—contained within a small, fluid-filled chamber. The game controller applies a mild electric field or releases a chemical into the chamber that influences the paramecia’s directional movement. A camera captures these movements and broadcasts them via the video game display.

For example, in the eponymous Cilliaball game, players alter the polarity of a mild electric field to direct soccer-playing Paramecium toward a soccer ball. In another two-player action game, Pond Pong, a chemical repellant is used to aim them toward the other player’s side of the game screen.

In the game Biotic Pinball players release a repelling chemical from a microneedle to guide the direction of paramecia. Source: YouTube

But Riedel-Kruse didn’t stop at Paramecium games. In another game, PolymeRace, players bet on which of several reactions will run the fastest in a real-time PCR (rtPCR) experiment. And in Prisoner’s Smellemma, players must use their olfactory acumen to bet whether or not their opponent added yeast—the fungus that gives bread its characteristic odor—to a liquid culture.

But biotic games may do much more than simply put the fun back into fungus.

In an educational setting, these games could allow students to explore and experience biology in a way no traditional school experiment could achieve. “If children have the capability to interact with living organisms more directly in a playful way, it may increase their motivation to understand what’s going on biologically and heighten their curiosity,” said Riedel-Kruse.

The games could facilitate the outsourcing of research to nonscientists, an approach known as crowd-sourcing. This method of mass collaboration in the form of video games has already seen success with online sites such as Fold-It, which allows players to solve various protein folding problems, and EteRNA, which allows players to propose novel molecular structures for RNA.

The biotic game PolymeRace converts real-time PCR into a betting game. Source: YouTube

Riedel-Kruse plans to examine the accessibility and utility of these games in different settings. “One challenge [of these games] is that they require an experimental setup in order to play,” said Riedell-Kruse.

In an effort to bridge this gap, Riedel-Kruse and Stanford colleagues Rhiju Das, assistant professor of biochemistry, and Daniel Schwartz, professor of education, have co-founded the Bio-X.Game Center for Education and Large Scale Science. The online facility will develop biotic games for educational and research applications.

“The main limitation of these games is our own creativity. There’s still so much cool stuff we could do that no one’s even thought of yet,” said Riedel-Kruse.

The paper "Design, engineering, and utility of biotic games" was published on September 23, 2010 at Lab on a Chip.