A small camera (white object with green circuit board on top), poised above the fluid chamber in the center of the black stand, transmits images of the paramecia as they swim about in response to changes in the polarity of an electrical field applied to the fluid chamber by the game player using a laptop computer. Credit: L.A. Cicero
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
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.
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 Lab on a Chip. The paper is available online now.
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.
The basic design of the
games involving paramecia—the single-celled organisms used in countless biology
experiments from grade school classes to university research labs—consists of a
small fluid chamber within which the paramecia can roam freely. A camera sends
live images to a video screen, with the “game board” superimposed on
the image of the paramecia. A microprocessor tracks the movements of the
paramecia and keeps score.
Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, assistant professor of bioengineering. Credit: L.A. Cicero
The player attempts to
control the paramecia using a controller that is much like a typical video game
controller. 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
one direction or another.
that paramecia, being single-celled organisms, lack a brain and the capacity to
feel pain. “We are talking about microbiology with these games, very
primitive life forms. We do not use any higher-level organisms,” he said.
“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 game on the
molecular level involves a common laboratory technique called polymerase chain
reaction, or PCR, an automated process that lets researchers make millions of
copies of an organism’s DNA in as little as two hours.
In this game, called
PolymerRace, the player is linked to the output of a PCR machine that is
running different reactions simultaneously. While the reactions are running,
the players can bet on which reactions will be run the fastest.
PolymerRace is inspired by horse races, where you have different jockeys riding
different horses,” Riedel-Kruse said. “There is a little bit of
bio-molecular logic involved and a little bit of chance.”
The third game uses
colonies of yeast cells that players have to distinguish based on their
bread-vinegar like smell—olfactory stimuli anyone can experience just by
walking into a bakery.
“The idea is that
while we as humans play the game, we interact with real biological processes or
material,” he said. His research group thinks that aspect of the games
could help motivate children and even adults to learn more about biology, which
is increasingly important to society.
“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,” Riedel-Kruse said. “Therefore everyone should have
sufficient knowledge about the basics of biomedicine and biotechnology. Biotic
games could promote that.”
Riedel-Kruse wants to
maximize the educational potential of these games to enable lay people to
contribute to biomedical research. The team hopes that by publishing his
group’s initial efforts, other researchers in the life sciences will be
prompted to explore how their own research could be adapted to
“biotic” video games.
Other researchers have
developed biologically relevant Internet-based video games such as Fold-It,
which lets players try different approaches to folding proteins, and EteRNA,
developed in a collaboration between Stanford and Carnegie Mellon
University, which lets
players propose new molecular structures for ribonucleic acids (RNA).
Fold-It and EteRNA were
developed to address specific research questions. Fold-It was strictly a
simulation; and although EteRNA will actually test some proposed structures in
the laboratory, the players themselves do not have direct interaction with
biological processes in real time as in Riedel-Kruse’s biotic games.
Part of Riedel-Kruse’s
continuing work will include close collaborations with Rhiju Das, an assistant
professor of biochemistry at Stanford and one of the developers of EteRNA, and
Daniel Schwartz, professor in the School
of Education at Stanford.
The three co-founded the “Bio-X.Game
Center” to develop
and apply biotic games to education and research.