September 2011

Biotic games: playing with living organisms

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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