A common criticism of single-player video games is that they isolate their players, shutting them off from anything or anyone that exists in the real world. Well, that certainly can’t be said of the lab-based “biotic games” created by Stanford University physicist Ingmar Riedel-Kruse – while they may be fashioned after arcade classics, his games require players to manipulate living microorganisms in real time. If you want to “kick” a soccer ball into a net, for instance, you have to get an actual paramecium to do it for you.

The gaming hardware is based around a small fluid chamber containing paramecia, with a video microscope attached to it. The feed from the camera is sent to a computer, where it is superimposed over the various game grids. A microprocessor tracks the movements of the paramecia, and keeps score as they unknowingly move through the grid with which their images are being combined.

Using a home gaming system-like controller, players attempt to influence the movement of the microorganisms by doing things such as varying the polarity of a mild electrical field that is being applied to the chamber, or releasing whiffs of chemicals from one side or the other.

Besides the soccer-like Ciliball game, other titles include the Pac Man-esque PAC-mecium, along with Biotic Pinball and POND PONG. While all of those games involve the manipulation of single-celled creatures, Riedel-Kruse’s other biotic games fall into two more categories: those that involve biological processes on a molecular level, and those that involve whole colonies of cells.

"We are talking about microbiology with these games, very primitive life forms.  We do not use any higher-level organisms," said the Stanford physicist. "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."

Besides getting players to ponder philosophical quandaries, the games are also intended simply to get people interested in microbiology, and down the line could be used for crowd-sourcing – obtaining scientific data through the input of laypeople. If so, they wouldn’t be the first games to do so. The University of Washington recently launched the internet-based Foldit game, in an effort to gather strategies for folding proteins, while Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon University’s EteRNA gets players to create new molecular structures for ribonucleic acids.

All images courtesy Stanford University