Stanford researchers have made a video game where real microbes become Pac Men, and soccer players, that can be directed through a maze. And they’ve given us the blueprints to build our own.
The pleasure of playing video games springs, at least in part, from the feelings of control and power that saturate the player, however temporarily. In the end, though, the Q*berts, the Marios, and the Master Chief Petty Officer John-117s, are just lights on the screen, code in the machine. Nothing alive, or even tangible, has been driven, jumped, or killed. But now gamers weary of the merely digital can get their power trip on playing a video game where they’re in control of an actual living organism.
Ingmar H. Riedel-Kruse, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford, wanted to “allow everyday people to experience the microbiologic processes that are normally hidden from us in new ways, enabled by modern technology,” he says. “We all can look through a microscope and see these cells, but you can never really interact with them and touch them.” In a paper published in Plos One in October, he offers a blueprint for a device that allows gamers, hobbyists, and budding scientists to turn microbes to Pac Men.
In short, with a smart phone, a joystick, an off-the-shelf eyepiece, some LEDs, a handful of 3D printed parts, and some Euglena cells, bio-gamers can be directing a microbe through a maze in a matter of hours. The price for these parts is less than a $100—less than $60 if you have access to a 3D printer. The cells (which are both cheap and safe) can be ordered from a school supply company and will last for months unrefrigerated.
Once assembled, the phone shows what’s going on under the DIY microscope. At the start it’s nothing more than Euglena cells swimming willy-nilly. But once players tap the image of one of the Euglena cells, a Pac Man character instantly appears superimposed on top of it, as well as a surrounding maze with edible dots. The Pac Man/Euglena cell unit can then be steered through the maze with the joystick, gobbling dots as it goes, just as the original arcade character did back in the 1980s. The joystick turns the LEDs on and off, attracting (and repulsing) the cells, which are light sensitive.
In another game the cells are athletes on a soccer field who can dribble a soccer ball down the screen and can pass it to other cells or kick for a goal.
Getting a bunch microbes to behave according to plan on a soccer field was as difficult as getting a bunch of five year olds to behave according to plan on a soccer field. “There were a number of challenges,” says Riedel-Kruse. “These cells have circadian rhythms and other influences, so the way they respond to the light may vary at different times of the day and between days. On the other hand, maybe that’s also what makes the flavor—you interact with something that is living and less predictable.”
However thrilling the joy of cell manipulation, The LudusScope is not meant for fun alone. The hope is that it will educate on three different levels: in constructing the device; in playing the games; and in experimentation. “You have augmented play which basically transitions into more serious scientific inquiry, where you can make measurements,” says Riedel-Kruse. “You see the cells swimming across the screen and you have real time tracking, which tells you how fast the cells are moving.”
To ramp up the educational value of the game system, Riedel-Kruse’s lab has received a seed grant from the NIH to develop a kind of kit with all the necessary elements. If mass-produced, the cost of a LudusScope kit would likely go below $30. At that price point, the LudusScope may become the first videogame kids are allowed to bring to school.
“For me the key tagline is to really make biology accessible,” says Riedel-Kruse, “to not only look through a microscope and see, but to influence what you see.”
Michael Abrams is an independent writer.