Pac-Man Gets a Biotic Upgrade: Now Gamers Play It With Microbes

By Patrick Morgan | January 19, 2011 1:55 pm

Pac-Man is looking different these days–he’s slimmed down, translucent, and has grown a mane of cilia. And he’s also alive. Meet Pac-Mecium, one of eight “biotic games” developed by Stanford physicist Ingmar Riedel-Kruse and his team. For the first time in gaming history, players directly “control” living organisms such as paramecia–a breakthrough that could lead to the baby boom of citizen scientists.

In a paper published in the journal Lab on a Chip, the researchers describe the games they made with names like “Biotic Pinball” and “POND PONG” and “Ciliaball,” in which humans interact with everything from a few molecules to colonies of cells. In the case of PAC-Mecium, a game board image is projected over a paramecium, and while the player sees the image via a live camera, the paramecium’s progress and score are accounted for by a microprocessor. As Stanford News reports:

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.

If you’re hankering for a day at the races but don’t live near a horse track, you can now play “PolymerRace,” in which you can place bets on how fast a machine can copy DNA. In it, the players are fed the output of a Polymerase Chain Reaction machine, which copies DNA, and employing both chance and logic, they place their wagers on which line they think is the fastest.

Other games involve more direct contact with organisms, including one in which players compete against each other to distinguish different colonies of yeast cells–all based on their smells. Forget about gamer’s thumb–pretty soon, you’ll have to beware of gamer’s nose.

Despite the fun and games, though, the researchers have noble intentions: to foster public interest in the life sciences. And maybe, down the road, gamers can even get some real science done. Stanford News quotes Riedel-Kruse:

“The applications 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…. 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.

In addition to fostering citizen scientists, the games also raise ethical issues: Is it right to play games with living organisms? Some may hold that all life should be respected, while others may argue that paramecia can’t feel pain because they haven’t evolved a brain. Still others may point to horse racing, polo, and other animal-based sports as indications that it’s a non-question.

No matter your take on the issue, it’s clear that the advent of biotic games is rife with interesting possibilities. And for all those sore video-game losers out there, your dejected mutterings about a game having “a mind (or biological instincts) of its own” will finally ring true.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: This is Your Brain on Video Games
DISCOVER: Video Games That Make the World Better
80beats: Mind-Controlled Video Game Gets a Tryout in Japan
80beats: Some Kids Are “Pathologically” Addicted to Video Games, Study Finds
Discoblog: Did Google Pac-Man Destroy Worker Productivity? We’re Unconvinced.


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