Mould Rush II @ Now Play This 2019

Traditional video gaming community meets the emerging DIY Biologists and Biohackers:
 
They play a hybrid biological-digital game Mould Rush II, that allows them to 
manipulate living micro-organisms using computer-driven controls. Mould Rush II 
aims to open up a discussion on the future possibilities of how biotechnology can 
contribute to digital entertainment.
A scene from a typically colourful conclusion of Mould Rush game

Introduction

Mould Rush II is a ‘Farmville’ type of game with a twist: Instead of computer-generated crops, you grow and nurture real micro-organisms. There are two clans of microbes that you choose to grow. The aim is to expand your clan as much as possible during a set period of time. You control the environment, add food, reproduce new cells, and even kill off rival clan members, all done through an iPad-controlled robotic arm, that allows physical access to the living microbes inside a sealed container. The gameplay is live-streamed online, so people can watch your clan slowly expand into beautifully textured and colourful terrains, at their leisure, across the world.

Working prototype of robotic arm, made from Lego Mindstorm EV3 components and additional parts (e.g. syringe).
Two competing territories, side by side. These are agar nutrient plates where micro-organisms grow. The robotic arms can access any point in the territory drop supplies, bomb rival territories, and reproduce new cells
Robotic arm: side view
The use of robotically-controlled syringe enables small amount of liquid (e.g. antibacterial agent) to be dispensed onto the microbes

Background & Motivation

Mould Rush II is a ‘biotic game’, a relatively new genre of hybrid game that integrates living cells into a digital gaming platform.

Whilst the game can be enjoyed by everyone, it is especially designed to bring two communities together: DIY biology enthusiasts who are interested in manipulating and tinkering with micro-organisms, and alternative gamers, who wish to experiment with alternative gaming platforms.

Gameplay

The game begins with just a few cells growing on the nutrient agar plate (which is called ‘the territory’). The players can then start to influence their growth, using the any of the below commands that can be executed by the robot. Players simply type in their command on an iPad, along with coordinates for different locations within their territory.

  • Feeding: Extra nutrient can be added to the territory to promote growth
  • Reproduction: Cells can be transferred from one location to the other, to start a new patch of growth
  • Trading: The two rival clans can swap their cells with each other
  • Killing: Players can attack the rival clan by dropping antibacterial ‘bombs’ onto their territory

Mould Rush II can be played by unlimited number of players per clan, but the robotic arm that manipulates the microbes will be controlled by one player at a time. It is played continuously over 7 days, which allows time for microbial clans to thrive and transform with time.

Players can control the robotic arm using an iPad
Gameplay in action as it appears on the monitor screen

Interactivity

At the exhibition, players will interact with a robotic arm, which will respond immediately according to the player’s commands. As their commands are executed onto the microbes, they will in turn respond accordingly, over several days: They will either grow, die, or even change colour depending on the type of commands executed. Players will be able to monitor these gradual changes online, as the gameplay will be live-streamed.

Health & Safety

Since Mould Rush II involves interaction with real micro-organisms, we will work closely with the curator and health and safety officer to ensure safe and ethical interaction to take place. In terms of set up, this would mean that the microbes will be sealed securely to ensure there is no direct physical contact between the biological material and the visitors. If need be, the microbes can be located at a remote location (e.g. professional certified lab at Queen Mary University). This would still work, since the robotic arm can be controlled through the Internet.

In addition, Good Microbiological Practice will be undertaken in preparing the game, and relevant UK Government guidelines will be consulted (http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/misc208.pdf)

Game as Research

Mould Rush II game will form part of my on-going PhD research, at Media and Arts Technology (MAT) at Queen Mary University. Investigations into designing game of this type, and associated player experience have already been studied. They have been published in several journals and conferences. Some of them include:

R. Kim, S. Thomas, R. van Dierendonck, and S. Poslad. 2018. A New Mould Rush: Designing for a Slow Bio-Digital Game Driven by Living Micro-organisms. In Proceedings of Foundations of Digital Games Conference. Malmö, Sweden. August 7-10, 2018 (FDG’18). DOI: 10.1145/3235765.3235798.

R. Kim, S. Thomas, A. Kaniadakis, R. van Dierendonck, and S. Poslad. 2018. Microbial Integration on Player Experience of Hybrid Bio-Digital Games. INTETAIN, Guimaräes, Portugal, 20-23 November.

Full papers are available upon request.