June 9, 2014

Can Video Games Inspire the Next Generation of Biohackers?

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Could video games inspire the next generation of biohackers?

Think back on your childhood and I’ll bet you can recall at least one video game that kept you awake on a school night, indoors on a perfectly sunny day, and/or bonding with your friends and family. Some games are designed to be more relaxing and help pass time while on a bus to work or school (Candy Crush, for instance), while others force the user to become a little more engaged and use a little more grey matter (The Sims, Civilization V, and the like). Games residing in the latter group can actually be good for brain health, intellectualism, eye health, and more.

You may dismiss the idea that video games could introduce a child or young adult to the biological sciences — or synthetic biology specifically — but the emergence of games like Spore, Plague Inc., and Nanocrafter might hint otherwise. It sounds crazy, but could video games inspire the next generation of biohackers? Let’s take a closer look to see how its plausible.

From microbe to Master of the Galaxy

Spore was one of my favorite games for making excuses to put off the occasional college assignment until last minute. The game has five stages: (1) Cell Stage, (2) Creature Stage, (3) Tribe Stage, (4) Civilization Stage, and (5) Space Stage. If you’re following where this is going, then, yes, you get to design a simple microorganism and guide its evolution into a galaxy-travelling, planet-terraforming civilization.

Users begin the game in Cell Stage by designing a custom microorganism with a base number of “DNA points”. If you decide to build a carnivorous organism, then you’ll have to float around a primordial pool to find prey. If you want to create an organism that lives a vegan lifestyle, then you’ll need to munch on microscopic algae and plants. Eat and swim around long enough (while avoiding predators, of course) and you’ll accumulate enough DNA points and find enough new biological parts (more robust flagella for faster traveling, defensive ornaments such as horns to ward off predators, and even the ability to become an omnivore) to evolve into an improved specimen. Evolve enough times and you’ll emerge from the watery depths to try out life on land in Creature Stage.

One of the great things about Spore is its complexity; every trait you acquire and every decision you make guides the evolution of your organism. Starting out as a carnivore tends to make your species more warlike in later stages, while being friendly to other strange organisms in Creature Stage will help negotiate galactic trade deals when your species reaches Space Stage. Some may play the game without thinking much about the bigger picture, but what if the next great synthetic biology entrepreneur or organism engineer is a 10-year old kid with a laptop that can owe his start, at least in part, to a video game?

Twisted? Yes. Addicting? Also yes.

The mobile game Plague Inc. takes the whole civilization-building thing in the other direction: the goal is to wipe out all humans on Earth before a cure can be researched. (Admittedly, the synthetic biology industry would probably be humanity’s saving grace in such a scenario, but don’t take it personally.) Users begin the game by selecting a plague type — bacteria, virus, fungus, parasite, prion, nano-virus, and bio-weapon — each of which comes with advantages and disadvantages regarding transmission, symptoms, and special abilities.

Source: Plague Inc.

Source: Plague Inc.

Similar to Spore, your microbe evolves new abilities when enough DNA points are acquired from reaching specific milestones. However, the milestones in Plague Inc. involve infecting new nations, catching a ride on a new form of transportation along major travel routes (sea, air, land), and wiping out large swaths of humans.

Designing DNA for fun

Zoran Popovic, Professor of computer science and engineering and the Director of the Center of Game Science at the University of Washington, has created two games designed to get the public more involved with biology. The first, Foldit, uses the power of the crowd to discover the optimal shape of real proteins for real biotech drug candidates. Adam Wernick of Science Friday described the amazing early success of the game in a recent article:

Foldit’s innovation was that it invited people from all over the world to actively participate in the scientific process. Biochemists had been working on [determining the shape of a specific protein] for 13 years before they approached him, Popovic says. Within 10 days, Foldit players solved the problem. Two weeks later, the results were confirmed in the laboratory — the players had found the shape scientists had been looking for.

Popovic created another hit, this time specific to the synthetic biology community, when he launched the puzzle game Nanocrafter, which is specifically designed to educate individuals on DNA and encourage creativity. While the article above dramatically underrepresents synthetic biology (stating only 50 to 100 people are working in the field worldwide), the game builds on real-world phenomenon to teach people about DNA. Simple? Super. Valuable to younger individuals being introduced to biology? Immensely.

Could it happen?

The next-generation of biohackers may be quite comfortable with DNA design tools being created by DNA2.0 and Genome Compiler, or the idea of issuing commands to robots at Ginkgo Bioworks to build custom organisms, or the visualization tools from design platforms such as Project Cyborg from Autodesk. Then again, perhaps the field of synthetic biology is already learning something from video games. After all, they’re designed to be user-friendly, encourage strategic planning, and seed collaboration. Indeed, similar features are now incorporated into DNA and organism design software.

Note that I’m not saying every individual that plays a video game will suddenly become passionate or interested in biology or synthetic biology, nor will any collection of games provide the background necessary for a successful career in the field. However, to a young student becoming interested in biology for the first time, video games could act as a tipping point that nudges them to investigate further. The way I see it, video games are certainly valuable — and welcomed — tools for engaging the public.

Follow Maxx Chatsko on Twitter @BlacknGoldFool