Crowdsourced science is certainly getting to be popular. Stanford researchers had developed a variation where gamers get to experiment on real organisms (from the Jan. 14, 2011 news item on Nanowerk),
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 being played.
These “biotic 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.
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 researchers have recently published a paper for the journal Lab on a Chip‘s 10th anniversary. Published by the Royal Society (UK), the article, Design, engineering and utility of biotic games, is free.
As for what the games are like,
“We tried to mimic some classic video games,” he [Riedel-Kruse] 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.
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.
The researchers are hoping that in addition to crowdsourcing research, the games will stimulate discussion about bioethical issues,
Riedel-Kruse emphasized 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.”
Whether you are comfortable or not with the notion of playing games with live organisms, the news item and/or the article in the journal Lab on a Chip is well worth reading for an insight into how biotechnology researchers are hoping to engage the public.
ETA Jan.19.11: GrrlScientist has posted about this game on her Punctuated Equilibrium blog (one of the Guardian Science blogs), from the Jan.19.11 posting,
The narrator claims that video games like this can teach people about biological processes and can be used to run large experiments … what do you see paramecium video games being useful for? Do you see it as a valuable technical or scientific tool, or just as a wacky sort of video game?
Comments such as these may interest you,
I can’t figure out exactly what a user would learn about biological processes. fish eat paramecia which eat yeast? the direction of paramecia movement is coordinated by the electric field?
am i being short sighted? perhaps this is the first step to ‘real-life’ video games?