Microbial Videogames


Friday, June 17, 2011

Microbial videogames insert living single-celled organisms into traditional gameplay. Microbial videogames insert living single-celled organisms into traditional gameplay. (Ingmar Riedel-Kruse and Alice Chung)

Ingmar Riedel-Kruse runs a biophysics lab at Stanford University, but he spends about half his time tinkering with videogames. He’s not playing World of Warcraft. Riedel-Kruse creates his own videogames using living microbes. The most playable is Pacmecium, inspired by classic Pac-Man, in which the player guides a host of paramecia around obstacles and targets. The four-button controller shifts a weak electrical field, which the paramecia are attracted to. 

There’s no grant funding for this, so Riedel-Kruse used what he had. There’s an armature made of Lego bricks and a commercial webcam rigged with a microscopic lens. You watch the action on a laptop screen as you steer the microbes away from a virtual chomping fish. 

Microbial Videogames webcamA webcam and microscope capture the action.

To test the game, our reporter enlisted Scott Patterson, the world record holder on several versions of Pac-man, for a pixilated showdown in the lab. Patterson was impressed, noting subtle differences in game play: “It’s more like I’m guiding them, rather than instructing them.” Who will win the title — the inventor, or the champ?


Video: Playing the microbial videogame Pacmecium

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Lindsay Patterson

Comments [5]

Michael Wolf from Cape Town

Interesting on first sight, but isn't 'herding microbes' with electrical current in principle quite similar to racing dogs with a fake rabbit, whilst watching it on TV? Anyway, it seems to be fun and may lead to more exciting concepts.

Jun. 24 2011 05:33 PM
Kerr Lockhart from Teaneck, NJ (Center of Known Universe)

@Zach - Why does there need to be an immediate use or commercial application? The Big Bang Theory was formulated by Bell Labs scientists trying to figure out why space was so noisy. There was no expectation that AT&T* could make money for that discovery, but they cheerfully funded it. Scientists and inventors need to be free to where their fancy takes them.

*The real AT&T, not the brandname being used by one of the Baby Bells today.

Jun. 18 2011 09:59 AM
David Heroy

Leggos, packman, and microscopes, the ultimate combination!

Jun. 17 2011 10:07 PM

Hi Zach,

So far as we know, Prof. Riedel-Kruse hasn't come up with any commercial applications for his games, but in the radio story he does express his desire to use them to engage students in biology.

On the webpage describing his biotic games research, which we link to in the above article, Riedel-Kruse mentions his belief that the games can enable "non-scientists to engage and interact with modern biotechnology." The page also states that his lab is now developing games designed specifically to support biomedical research.

You're right in pointing out the limitations on the existing commercial applications, but the implications for education and research are pretty exciting.



Jun. 17 2011 01:35 PM
Zach from Seattle, Wa

I hate to point to the elephant in the room but what is the big deal? What are the practical implications of this game? Are there any commercial applications?
The stoner guy looked like he was going to fall asleep.

Jun. 16 2011 09:57 PM

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