There’s exciting news for those of us who wish to bridge the gap between video games and the real world. Researchers have recently constructed what may be the world’s first video games incorporating living organisms!

A research group at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, use single-celled paramecia organisms, which normally exist in ponds and other aquatic environments, as “subjects” in games reminiscent of arcade classics like Pac-Man, Pong and Pinball.

During these so-called biotic games, the video gamer can actually direct the movement of the living paramecia by using a video game-style controller. Depending on the type of game, different approaches are used to influence the cells’ movement.

Did you know? Paramecia swim using small hair-like structures on the surface of their body, called cilia. They propel the cells in a similar way oars are used to move a boat.

For example, for the game styled after Pac-Man (or, as they call it, Pac-mecium), professor Ingmar Riedel-Kruse and his colleagues took advantage of paramecia’s response to electrical stimulus – which is known as galvanotaxis. The paramecia are immersed in a fluid-filled chamber wherein a mild electric current is applied. Electrons flow from a negative terminal (cathode) to a positive terminal (anode), aligning the paramecia with the electrical current and causing them to swim toward the cathode. The direction of the electrical current can be changed by the controller, causing the paramecia to change direction as well.

Did you know? Pac-Man was created by Atari in 1980 and involves the hero negotiating a maze while trying to eat all of the pac-dots before being attacked by the four roaming enemies (Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde).

The games styled after Pinball and Pong require a different process, called chemotaxis, in which the paramecia respond to chemicals as opposed to an electrical current. Pinball stars paramecia as the “ball”, with the gamer releasing directed streams of special chemicals from the “flippers” into the fluid in which the paramecia swim. As paramecia swim toward the flippers, they are repelled by the chemicals and change direction, which mimics the motion of the ball being bounced off real flippers in the arcade version.

For those of us concerned about cruelty to animals, Riedel-Kruse is very quick to clarify that these organisms lack the appropriate receptors and nerves to feel pain (compared to more complex, multi-cellular organisms such as birds, snakes, dogs, and humans).

Learn More!

Gizmodo – Scientists Create Real-LifePacMan Using Microorganisms

Paramecia asPac-Man

Original article, courtesy of “Lab on aChip” Journal

What is "taxis"?

CurioCity video about the game

Article first published February 1, 2011.

Photo Credit:Pacman © Namco

Andrew H

I am a native of Vancouver, with a B.Sc. in pharmacology from the University of British Columbia (UBC), and am currently doing my Ph.D in cardiovascular physiology at UBC. I am an avid photographer, hockey fan (Go Canucks!) and hiker, having hiked the 77 km West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island twice, among other conquests. In addition, I am a frequent player of video games, owning several different systems. My favorite games, while numbering too many to mention, include God of War, Metroid Prime, and Super Mario Galaxy.


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