Widgets Magazine

New video games allow interaction with live organisms

A Stanford professor of bioengineering has developed the first video game that allows players to influence the actions of live microorganisms in real time as they interact with a computer.

Bioengineering professor Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, who conceptualized the game, says he created it to explore the concept of educating people about microorganisms and biology by enabling “lay people to interact with biology and microscopic processes and better understand how these work.”

Players can direct the movement of single-celled organisms, called paramecia, by manipulating the polarity of an electrical field. (COURTESY OF INGMAR RIEDEL-KRUSE)

To fully accomplish this goal, Riedel-Kruse created not one but eight different games, which can be classified into one of three categories based on the type of organisms they work with. One of these “biotic games” uses single-celled organisms, called paramecia, and allows participants to use a video game controller to “move” these microorganisms on the screen. By manipulating a mild electric field around the organism, players can influence its movement in a particular direction.

While the computer base is purely virtual, the organisms are real. The game involving paramecia has five different versions for players to choose from—including PAC-mecium, which was created in the image of Pacman, and a biotic pinball game called POND PONG.

The other two categories involve molecules and yeast cells.

Riedel-Kruse says the idea for the current design, which took about a year to develop, came in 2009 when he was a researcher at Caltech. When he read on the Internet about the history of video games and realized that their advent was propelled by the rising computer industry, he thought about doing the same with the biotech industry developing today.

“If we could use computer technology to create games, then why aren’t we using biotech to create games?” he said. “It was just an initial question.”

Furthermore, the games can collect data as they are played. Therefore, they essentially allow ordinary individuals to serve the purpose of research assistants. Instead of paying an intern to search for data, Riedel-Kruse hopes to motivate widespread participation with the enjoyable gaming environment. The strategy presents certain challenges, however.

“Since the games are [designed as] experiments, in order to enable someone to play, we have to give access to the experiments,” Riedel-Kruse said.

Such difficulties stem from the fact that some of the games require an expensive laboratory apparatus known as a PCR machine. However, Riedel-Kruse hopes to overcome this challenge with a grant from the National Science Foundation that would allow the game to be played online using remote access.

He also hopes to put the games in the schools and museums within a year to give way to wider consumption.

“Definitely we hope that we could make it available to the public in the end,” Riedel-Kruse said. “The next step is basically collaboration with Daniel Schwartz of the School of Education to do user studies with schoolchildren to assess educational potential and how to design games to make them more attractive to students.”

In the end, Riedel-Kruse’s goals are not commercial; he does not plan on founding a company. Instead, further research will concentrate on identifying what users find attractive in order to allow broader dissemination of the game.