September 2011

Biotic games: playing with living organisms

Biotic_games_pac_mecium2  biotic_games_controller2  Biotic_games_soccer2 

It’s easy to imagine how computer games greatly improve verbal and mathematical proficiency, but can they be used to foster an interest in science? Stanford University’s Ingmar Riedel-Kruse is convinced they can.

An assistant professor of bioengineering, Riedel-Kruse and his lab group have developed the first biotic games, which involve manipulating biological processes in real time. They use various visualization techniques to illustrate and monitor these processes on a computer screen with a gamelike interface.

Inspiration to create biotic games came from reading the history of computers and video games, Riedel-Kruse explained.

“Computer development enabled video games. Since biotechnology is currently undergoing a similar revolution, it struck me that biotechnology could also be a medium for a new type of game,” he said.

Many video games attempt to mimic real life, but biotic games use actual life forms, such as paramecia and yeast. Players learn about a variety of biological, chemical and physical properties without dealing with the rigors of formal experiments. Additionally, living organisms often respond in random ways, which makes them fascinating to watch.

“Biotic games enable interesting play experiences based on real-life phenomena, biological unpredictability or the stimulation of olfactory senses,” Riedel-Kruse said. “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."

Riedel-Kruse designed three types of games inspired by classic video games. The results of the design efforts are reported in the 10th-anniversary issue of Lab on a Chip, published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The first set of games uses single-celled organisms that lack a brain and the capacity to feel pain. Higher-level organisms are not being used, Riedel-Kruse emphasizes, as “safety and bioethical issues were considered in the design of the games.”

Examples of scientific crowdsourcing for fun

Other scientists have designed Internet-based video games to utilize the collective power of many people working on one problem. In the gaming world, this is referred to as crowdsourcing or citizen science, in which a task is delegated to a group of individuals with one common goal.

Vijay Pande at Stanford University created a protein-folding game (folding@home) that is run on the world’s largest supercomputer to generate new ideas about how proteins fold.

In addition, EteRNA, a ribonucleic acid folding game, allows the public to create new RNA molecular structures. The players are scored based on known chemical properties of the RNA structure. The highest-scoring RNA molecules are tested in the laboratory. EteRNA was developed as a collaboration between the Carnegie Mellon University and the Bio-X.Game Center, an interdisciplinary research center at Stanford University.

The organism of choice was the paramecium, which is a ciliated single-celled organism that swims in a run-and-tumble motion and can be directed to move in a guided direction through both electrical and chemical signals. Paramecia can be prompted to change directions, but they move in a random path, which makes the games challenging.

In a game inspired by the classic arcade game Pac-Man, which Riedel-Kruse’s team has dubbed PAC-mecium, paramecia are placed in a square fluid chamber that has electrodes along each side. The player controls the swarm by applying electric fields along two axes with a hand-held controller. The motion of the paramecia is recorded with a webcam and displayed on a computer screen. Points are scored by directing the paramecia to gobble up virtual yeast food shown on the computer screen. However, players have to help the paramecia avoid hungry virtual zebrafish larvae that move across the screen.

The second class of games involves risk and logic. PolymerRace is inspired by horse racing, in which gamblers make bets on the order that horse-jockey pairings will reach the finish line. In the biotic version, the horse-jockey pairs are small DNA oligonucleotides, or primers, that bind with a range of affinities to DNA during a polymerase chain reaction, a common molecular technique used to replicate DNA sequences.

Players watch in real time the amplification of DNA and with each cycle obtain new information about the order and reaction efficiencies of the primer pairs. In each subsequent cycle, players make more bets; thus, the strategy is to balance risky, limited-information bets with secure, logic-driven bets.

The final class of games involves the use of olfactory senses. Prisoner’s Smellemma is based on the classic problem in game theory known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which demonstrates that people may not always cooperate even if it is in their best interests. Prisoner’s Smellemma is played with yeast, which emit a vinegarlike smell similar to that of freshly baked bread. Each player receives a yeast strain and buffer. Players mix either buffer or yeast strain with their opponent’s, smell the mixture and guess what the other player did. Players score points by guessing correctly whether their opponent is cooperating or opposing them.

These biotic games mark a milestone in the computer gaming world. It’s the first time a game has been created in which the player’s actions influence living organisms in real time. It’s easy to see how these games can be used for educational purposes, Riedel-Kruse said, especially in the classroom to get students excited about biology.

“Many computer experts discovered their love for computers when playing games,” he said. “Biotic games could have the same inspiring effect for biology and biotechnology.”

Riedel-Kruse said he also is optimistic that these games will inspire the public to contribute to biomedical research, because games can be used to target small armies of players or researchers who can run experiments and gather data as they play.

“Ideally we would like to structure a game so that many people will play, and each person feels like they are making a valuable contribution,” he said. “The more people thinking about a common problem with different backgrounds, the more likely we are able to solve that problem.”

Nancy-Van-ProoyenNancy Van Prooyen ( is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco.

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