XXVII.2 March - April 2020
Page: 82
Digital Citation

Toward growable computer games

Raphael Kim, Siobhan Thomas, Roland van Dierendonck, Christopher Wood, Stefan Poslad

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In recent years, helped by the widening accessibility of the knowledge, tools, and materials of biotechnology outside of professional biology labs, a growing number of HCI researchers and practitioners have been exploring the notion of integrating nonhuman living materials with interactive computer systems [1].

back to top  Insights


Biological integration provides a rich design and experience space, as it presents not two, but three-way interaction schema between the human (H), the computer (C), and the added biological (B) material, for investigation [1]. Such hybrid systems have the potential to enhance interactive experiences in ways that exclusively computer- or biology-driven systems may not be able to provide [2,3].

As the principles, materials, and techniques of biology become more familiar to the HCI community, its curriculum has naturally broadened too. This has created a fresh scope for biological education and training, to cater especially to those who may be unfamiliar with potential bioapplications. We took advantage of this opportunity by organizing a biotic gaming workshop, designed to allow participants to generate playful ideas on how biological elements could be integrated as part of an interactive design setup.

Biotic games combine computers with biological processes and materials to create playful interactive systems [1]. We chose biotic gaming as the main theme of our workshop, as it is a form of biologically integrated HCI product that can easily be framed for gamified learning, and as a teaching technique for new knowledge areas [4].

back to top  Running the Workshop

The workshop was held in the U.K. during March and April 2019, across two public venues: Open Cell (, a bio-design hub in London, and Now Play This, an experimental game design festival (htpps:// run annually at Somerset House. We invited students and practitioners from computer science, biology, and design to participate, as these disciplines form the backbone of biologically integrated HCI systems.

In order to set an appropriate backdrop for participants with limited biology training, each session began with an introductory presentation from an experienced biologist. Focusing on microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and yeasts—which are often implemented in bio-computing and HCI applications—the biologist outlined their morphologies, culturing conditions, and sensory capabilities.

Following this, the participants were given a short brief: to come up with a concept for a biotic game that combined living microorganisms and computer systems. The participants were allocated 45 minutes to create their game concept. They were also provided with basic craft materials for making low-fidelity models, which could help them to explain their concepts (Figure 1). Participants could determine the game genre and style, but were asked to consider a couple of suggestions:

ins02.gif Figure 1. Game-concept generation and model making.

First, participants were encouraged to ground their concepts in reality, meaning that the game had to be believable and implementable in real life. This was an important point, as it allowed the audience to engage with the work in a constructive manner. It also made it easier to turn the concept into a real functioning game, should they wish to develop it further.

Second, participants were encouraged to work in groups of two or three, made from participants from contrasting disciplines, and with at least one biologist in the group (e.g., computer science with biology). The aim was to utilize the educational benefits of game co-creation [5], while helping to incorporate adequate biotechnological grounding during the ideation.

At the end of the ideation session, the participants presented their ideas and accompanying models to the whole group, explaining how the game worked, their process of designing it, and insights they had gained from the session. This was followed by an open discussion reflecting on the concepts.

back to top  Outcomes and Discussion

In total, 24 participants attended the workshop across the two venues. A majority of the participants' backgrounds were computer science (n=8), interaction design (n=6), and biology (n=4), with the remaining coming from other design disciplines (architecture, fashion, and textiles). Participants were mostly undergraduate and postgraduate students (n=20), with some academic researchers (n=4).

Overall, 10 biotic game concepts were generated, presented, and discussed. While it is beyond the scope of the article to outline each and every one of them, here we present a select few that we feel are compelling for discussion.

Biotic games combine computers with biological materials to create playful interactive systems.

Biotic Tinder. Taking the popular gamified mobile dating app and making it "(pro)biotic," this game involves swabbing (rather than swiping) for partner compatibility. Following an online match, the two parties meet (Figure 2); bacteria cells from one's body are harvested and mixed with those from his/her prospective partner. The two sets of microbes are then cultured together to co-produce yogurt and cheese, which are tasted and rated by a panel of judges for taste (i.e., match) compatibility.

ins03.gif Figure 2. Biotic Tinder (concept by Lily Stevens).

The creators of this game concept further explained that finding a compatible match is a deliberately long process, allowing the dairies to mature slowly and develop full-bodied flavors. It is not only a playful critique against the fast-paced nature of a modern dating culture ("It takes time and commitment, so it's not an easy app for everyone!"), but is also a reaction to the instantaneous mechanics behind humans interacting with computer interfaces generally. This latter observation then opened up a new inquiry among the group, asking how slow interactivity, perhaps driven by slow, biological processes, could open up new user experiences in HCI.

The discussion had also raised a couple of interesting ethical issues. Some members of the audience had pointed out that in addition to the physically invasive manner of the human microbiome collection step being morally dubious in itself ("It sounds rather creepy!"), the consequential storage and exploitation of one's microbial identity raised issues of surveillance and data misuse, which echo current public debates around genetic profiling enterprises such as 23andMe ( and AncestryDNA (

Mold Tetris. A biotic twist on yet another popular product, Mold Tetris is a slow, meditative game driven by a combination of mechatronics and fungal proliferation (Figure 3). Unlike the original classic, the chunks of blocks (tetraminoes) with seeded fungal spores fall agonizingly slowly, at a rate of one shift every 10 hours. To complicate things even further, the tetraminoes become viable only once their surface is fully covered by cells that sprout from the embedded spores during the game. It is a game about patience, rumination, and relaxation, a far cry from the instantly earned gratification sought from its original digital counterpart. Upon sharing the concept on social media, one user commented that she would enjoy the "absurdity of slow interactivity" of the game.

ins04.gif Figure 3. Mold Tetris (concept by Tomo Kihara).

Playful public spaces. This was a theme underlying two separate concepts. In Psychomoldica (Figure 4), the creators imagined a world where the seasonal revival of mold spores is used to provide infrastructural support for autumnal music festivals. Growing as modular blocks, the living structures would not only provide electricity to power the event, but also double up as playful decor that generates elaborate growth patterns in response to sound waves. Contrastingly, the Shadow Sculptures concept offers to shape nonliving materials around the mold, rather than vice versa. Taking advantage of the different aesthetic responses of mold to sunlight exposure—which incidentally, is a commonly observed phenomenon in microbiology—a series of sculptures are built to create patterns of shadows and contrasting fungal visuals in public parks.

ins05.gif Figure 4. Psychomoldica (concept by Danica D'Souza and Ade Yeo).

Both Psychomoldica and Shadow Sculptures demonstrate how the distinctly biological process of growth can be harnessed and celebrated to potentially enhance a visual experience of gameplay. Admittedly, these concepts do not involve direct mergers with computer systems. However, the inherently slow interactivity between an environmental stimulation (i.e., sound and sunlight) and the responding fungal growth offers some insight into how potential accompanying computer systems could be designed. For example, an image sensor that reacts to changes in fungi color should be robust enough to detect subtle microscopic changes and to operate over a relatively long period of time (e.g., days or weeks). While challenging from a practical point of view, it could be a worthwhile compromise if enough intrigue can be crafted out of biology as a result.

A series of sculptures are built to create patterns of shadows and contrasting fungal visuals in public parks.

Participant feedback. As a general overview, the majority of the participants (84 percent, n=20) remarked that they had enjoyed the workshop, with 75 percent (n=18) stating that they found the session helpful in understanding how biological elements could be integrated into an interaction design setup. Around 70 percent of the participants (n=17) found the co-creation process of ideation helpful in learning new aspects of biological integration.

From the opening presentation and the open group discussion, many participants felt that they learned new biological knowledge, such as information related to microbiology and molecular biology. The notion of using DNA as a digital data storage system, for example, was mentioned during the discussion. This was a new concept for some, prompting them to consider bio-digital storage mechanisms as a driver for a new biotic game.

back to top  Lessons Learned

As we reflect on the workshop, we have gained some inviting insights about the potential implications of biologically integrated HCI systems. At face value, biotic games are in constant danger of being perceived as a purely anthropocentric pursuit that trivializes and disrespects life for the sake of fun [6]. On the other hand, as demonstrated by Biotic Tinder, integrating living systems offer an even more diverse ethical landscape for the HCI community to navigate. It highlighted that the source of origin and the long-term storage of an organism is just as important to address in bio-HCI investigations as the issues arising from the act of gamifying nature itself.

The Zen-like philosophy behind Mold Tetris presents a possible avenue for further investigation in how digital interactivity could be reframed when driven by biological processes, as well as for addressing unconventional derivatives of human pleasure. Similarly, the poetic potential of slow-growing and slow-visualizing systems of Psychomoldica and Shadow Sculptures hint toward alternative mindsets in designing accompanying computer systems, to work in tandem with extreme interactive speeds, rather than vice versa.

In order to form a balanced dialogue during the ideation session, we encouraged the participating groups to have a mixture of contrasting backgrounds. This was not always possible, given the absence of control over participant selection prior to the workshop. We suspect that the uneven mix may have contributed in some way to limiting the number of participants who have found the co-creation process helpful. Additionally, testing the game concepts to see how biologically integrated systems would work may have offered added learning opportunities, but this was not feasible given the time constraints. We plan to address these limitations through iterative workshops that build on our initial sessions, with a better balance of participant backgrounds, and with an extended timeframe to include prototype testing.

back to top  Conclusion

Biological integration in HCI presents a rich design and experience space, while broadening the scope of the HCI curriculum. The findings from our workshop suggest that the multisided pedagogy, comprising gamification, ideation, and co-creation, can benefit HCI education in two major ways. First, for educators, the workshop format is a cost-effective, quick, and practical way to initiate first-time engagement and discourse of emerging topics in HCI such as biotechnology. Second, for students and practitioners, the playful reframing of HCI as a biology-driven system can pave new avenues for philosophical debates, alternative audiences, and computer designs in HCI. Further details of our HCI and biotic game research can be found at

back to top  Acknowledgments

This research was supported by EPSRC and AHRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Media and Arts Technology (EP/L01632X/1). Special thanks to all participants of the workshop, and to Open Cell and Somerset House for facilitating the workshops.

back to top  References

1. Kim, R., Thomas, S., van Dierendonck, R., and Poslad, S. A new mould rush: Designing for a slow bio-digital game driven by living microorganisms. Proc. of Foundations of Digital Games Conference. 2018. DOI:10.1145/3235765.3235798

2. Kim, R., Thomas, S., van Dierendonck. R., Kaniadakis, A., and Poslad, S. Microbial integration on player experience of hybrid bio-digital games. In Intelligent Technologies for Interactive Entertainment. INTETAIN. Lecture Notes of the Institute for Computer Sciences, Social Informatics and Telecommunications Engineering 273. P. Cortez, L. Magalhães, P. Branco, C. Portela, and T. Adão, eds. Springer, Cham, 2018.

3. Kim, R., van Dierendonck, R., and Poslad, S. Moldy ghosts and yeasty invasions: Glitches in hybrid bio-digital games. CHI'19 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems;

4. Torrente, J., Moreno-Ger, P., Martínez-Ortiz, I., and Fernandez-Manjon, B. Integration and deployment of educational games in e-learning environments: The learning object model meets educational gaming. Educational Technology & Society 12, 4 (2009), 359–371.

5. Kangas, M. Creative and playful learning: Learning through game co-creation and games in a playful learning environment. Thinking Skill and Creativity 5, 1 (2010), 1–15.

6. Harvey. H., Havard. M., Magnus. D., Cho. M.K., and Riedel-Kruse. I.H. Innocent fun or microslavery? An ethical analysis of biotic games. Hastings Center Report 44, 6 (2014), 38–46.

back to top  Authors

Raphael Kim is a designer investigating computer-mediated interactions with nonhuman biological entities. Formerly a visiting lecturer at Design Interactions at Royal College of Art in London, he is currently a Ph.D. candidate in media and arts technology at Queen Mary University of London.

Siobhan Thomas is a games and technology consultant, videogame scholar, game designer, and developer based in London. Her research interests include bio-gaming, inclusivity in games, sensory game design, and games for learning and education.

Roland van Dierendonck is a creative researcher, artist, and former biologist based in Amsterdam. He runs the BioHack Academy at Waag, making low-cost open source biotechnology accessible for creatives. He has previously co-created a kit for euglena-based biotic games.

Christopher Wood is an artist whose practice critiques emergent technologies and the shifts they bring to both social practice and ontology. He has exhibited internationally and recently completed a Ph.D. in media and arts technology at Queen Mary University of London.

Stefan Poslad is a senior lecturer in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at Queen Mary University of London, and a member of the Networks Research Lab/Group and the Centre for Intelligent Sensing (CIS). His primary research focuses on ubiquitous computing and pervasive computing.

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