• 01.13.11

Pac-Man Reboot: In the Bio-Arcade, Microorganisms Change Gameplay

Forget Pac-Man–here’s “PAC-Mecium.” A Stanford researcher has designed what he’s calling “biotic games.” Instead of controlling pixels on a screen, you’re controlling a paramecium.

Pac-Man Reboot: In the Bio-Arcade, Microorganisms Change Gameplay

This will probably be the weirdest thing you will read today. Enjoy! A researcher at Stanford named Ingmar Riedel-Kruse has developed videogames that actually use living cells as part of the game mechanics. Think arcade classics–like Pac-Man or Centipede–but with actual microorganisms flitting about the screen. Riedel-Kruse and several co-authors published their study, “Design, engineering, and utility of biotic games,” in the most recent issue of the journal Lab on a Chip.


According to Stanford University News, this is the first time anyone has made a game in which “a player’s actions influence the behavior of living microorganisms in real time,” something we’re willing to readily believe. Anyway, it’s really best seen with your own eyes:

“One day I happened to read about the history and early development of computer games,” Riedel-Kruse tells Fast Company, “which was enabled by the advancement of computer technology. Since biotechnology currently undergoes a similar revolution…it struck me that biotechnology could also be a medium for a new kind of game.”

To the arcade classics that Riedel-Kruse has rebooted he has given clever names. Pac-Man played with a ravenous paramecium? PAC-Mecium. A horse-race-inspired betting game founded on the technique known as the polymerase chain reaction? PolymerRace. And don’t forget POND PONG and The Prisoner’s Smellemma. The microorganisms are housed in a chamber with a microscopic camera, which is hooked up to the computer that runs the gaming software.


Some games call for the player to directly influence the microorganisms; in PAC-Mecium, for instance, the player uses a controller to toggle the direction the paramecium moves by changing the polarity of an electric current applied to the fluid chamber in which the organisms move. Got that? In Biotic Pinball, the player can influence the direction the paramecia swim by injecting a chemical periodically into the fluid. If this seems cruel, Riedel-Kruse stresses that paramecia, lacking brains, don’t feel any pain. “We are talking about microbiology with these games, very primitive life forms. We do not use any higher-level organisms,” he told Stanford University News. Even so, he added: “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.”

That’s one possible use of the games. Another is educational: Riedel-Kruse and his colleagues hope to interest people in microbiology who otherwise wouldn’t take note. “Many computer experts discovered their love for computers when playing games. Biotic games could have the same inspiring effect for biology and biotechnology,” says Riedel-Kruse. A third possible use is scientific: small armies of gamer/researchers could essentially be running experiments and gathering data as they played–in other words, the game element could be an inducement to research crowd-sourcing.

While the games are undoubtedly eye-catching, it’s unclear yet whether they’re much fun. But with the Kinect flying off shelves, who knows? Could microfluidic chambers filled with paramecia be the next add-on to your XBox?

[Image: Royal Society of Chemistry/Lab on a Chip]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.