I admit it: when I sat down with Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, an Assistant Professor in Bioengineering at Stanford University, to discuss a possible rotation project, my first question for him was “why?” I wasn’t confused about why he was studying developmental patterning - that’s what had drawn me into his office in the first place. What confused me was the second path that his young lab was pursuing: biotic games.

The lab had devised three different types of biotic games. The first (and most interesting, and most advanced) type involves replicating simple arcade games using paramecia, single-celled organisms. These paramecia are placed in a small fluid chamber, and a microscope attached to a camera sends a live feed to a screen on which a familiar game board is overlaid. By making slight adjustments in the electric field in the chamber, the player can direct the paramecia to “eat” virtual yellow dots in PAC-mecium or kick a virtual soccer ball in Ciliaball. In other games like POND PONG and Biotic Pinball, the player can add small amount of chemicals to achieve motion.

The second type of biotic game occurs on a molecular level. In PolymerRace, players bet on the amount of DNA in different samples and “watch” the race as it plays out through simultaneous quantitative polymerase chain reactions (qPCR). In the third type of game, embodied by a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma called Prisoner’s Smellemma, involves sensory interaction with living biological systems.

So, at this point, if you’ve recovered from all the puns, you’re probably still wondering the same thing I was, why? And you, like I, are probably a bright, well educated, and quite possibly science-oriented, individual. So it may not occur to you that there are plenty of people in the world who do not fit into this category and read science blogs for fun. But I assure you, those people do exist, en masse, and it would behoove them (and the rest of us) to learn a bit more about science.

This is where the games come in. This simple interaction with biological systems could reignite interest in biology. Following an article in a Stanford publication on Thursday, several online tech and news sites picked up the story. One of my classmates here at Stanford told me that her fiancé (a former economics major at Harvard now working in human resources) had seen the story on a tech website and emphatically declared that she should join the Reidel-Kruse lab. She told me that she had never seen him so excited about biology.

In addition to arousing excitement about science, there’s definitely room for informal biological education in these games: in order to master PAC-mecium, one would have to understand how single celled organisms move. They need to learn what to expect; will the cells change direction on command? Will they always go the way you tell them to? Why not, and how can you improve this?

Also, these games could help expand the general public’s understanding of what composes the living world. The press surrounding the games has already begun to highlight our overly anthropomorphized view of anything that moves, and as such we have a chance to teach the world about microbes. Many people have asked whether the paramecia used feel pain, horrified that we would torture and electrocute them in the name of a video game. But simply because they move and can respond to external stimuli does not mean that paramecia have brains and nervous systems. Paramecia are single-celled protists, not even closely related to any organisms that can think or feel. 

Humans “torture,” “maim,” and “kill” an uncountable number of microbes daily. In fact, 90% of the cells in our body (about 4 pounds) are not derivatives of the zygotes that formed and developed into the macroorganisms we are today. Most of the genetic material we carry around came not from our parents, either, but resides in the single-celled critters we host in our gut, on our skin, and throughout our bodies. But we don’t worry about harming these little guys when we alter our diets, take showers, or celebrate our 21st birthdays. We happily coexist with these microbes, and we benefit from their use. Similarly, we will expand our biological appreciation, our respect for the living world on all levels, and our general happiness by using paramecia in biotic games.

If you remain unconvinced on the utility of biotic games despite what you’ve read up until now, or if you think that these activities do not belong in an academic research setting, consider Foldit. Foldit is a puzzle that asks participants to predict the three dimensional conformations of peptides, the macromoluecules that make proteins and enzymes and do most of the work for the biological world. Foldit has successfully used the computational power of players’ home PC’s as well as their brains to solve the 3D structures of many polypeptides. A group at Stanford has developed a similar game for RNA folding, EtaRNA

Biotic games could allow us to crowdsource experimental biology the way we have crowdsourced computational biology to give the general public an active role in academic science. This would not only give us more manpower and processing power, but also increase public understanding and support of science as a field. We constantly grumble about the way the public mistrusts, devalues, and misunderstands science, so let’s give them a portal into the scientific world.

When William Higinbotham created Tennis for Two on an oscilloscope in 1958, he could have never imagined the Wii of the Xbox Kinect. Nor could he have seen how gaming accelerated the development of faster processors and better graphics cards, developments that have improved computing for just about every other purpose as well. Who knows where biotic games can take us in the next 50 years?