Think Like a Bacterium: OSMOS, Naïve Quorum Sensing, & the iPad
I was recently sucked into playing OSMOS on my iPad. I never play video games (usually I am too busy: wife, art, school, work) but I did happen to spend four hours straight playing this game over winter break. This game synthesizes math, physics, biology, conceptualization and human enhancement.
First of all, I was drawn to this game because of my love of spheres (one of the cognitive linguistics projects in my quarry is to continue some work that I started on a spherical visualization model of dynamic construal and an analogy with the algae volvox sp.), and I was also fascinated by its design based on principles of physics, the notions of natural selection, and the biology-feel. I could tell that this was a game that would have a synthesizing effect on my problem-solving skills and that it would be an excellent way to foster a more visceral experience of life and an interface with technology. I started playing and couldn’t stop; I was hypnotized and hooked.
But as I was playing I realized that in addition to embodying principles from physics in the actual game, the activity of gaming was much more biological in a functional sense. What I mean is that as the AGENT (me) using the TOOL (game) to represent an extension of my body, I was having to think like a bacterium. I, the player, had to rely on my naïve intuitions of quorum sensing to successfully play the game and keep my mote (the life form avatar) alive.
Earlier this fall I sat through a guest lecture from Professor James P. Keener titled “How Cells Make Measurements”, I attended the lecture because of my personal interest in how volvox sp. perform cognitive acts in their colonies (i.e., moving, rotating, nesting: all from “decisions” about light and reproduction) and the lecture was billed as discussing quorum sensing in P. aeruginosa and filament length regulation in Salmonella. Both of these situations depend on “cognitive” processes that regulate and measure change, so, regarding cognition of micro-organisms, this lecture was fascinating.
Anyway, Keener presented how P. aeruginosa performs quorum sensing as an activity, and provided this definition:
Quorum sensing: The ability of a bacterium to sense the size of its colony and to regulate its activity in response. [6, Keener:
Even though I am not a decentralized network, when I was playing OSMOS I was exploiting quorum sensing in my game-play strategy. Here is what I mean: for many levels in the game the goal is to become the biggest, and moderating your size is a tactic for overcoming obstacles along the path of successfully reaching that goal. You start out as a small mote, you have to actively pursue and absorb motes that are smaller than yourself in order to increase your size. Sometimes if you get to be too big you will be unable to pass between two larger motes (each of which are eager to absorb you) and the impasse can lead to the termination of your game. You can “eject” matter from any direction by touching that part of the mote, and by so doing, you engage in a quasi-quorum sensing activity between the player, the iPad, the mote, and the other surrounding life forms.
Understanding your size in relation to the functions which you can perform is also another instance of quorum sensing; as you increase in size the number of other motes which you can absorb increases (as a larger mote you can now absorb smaller motes). This is very similar to another game: Katamari Damacy the Japanese game that means “clump enthusiasm” where as the prince of the universe your task is to roll around a little clump to pick things up like pencils and candy in order to increase in size until you can clump cows, trees, cars, whales, islands, planets, and galaxies. Again, this depends on quorum sensing to maximize your time; you don’t want to waste time bumping into things that are too large for you to pick up, so knowing how to regulate what you pursue based on your clump size is vital to performance.
I want to reflect on how Keener’s research and OSMOS resemble one another.
Basically Keener’s research brings together a biologist’s mind with a mathematician’s mind. Biologists are often characterized by their tolerance for ambiguity (because so much of life and mind and process is ambiguous), and mathematicians are often characterized by their affinity for precision (or put differently, their lack of tolerance for ambiguity). Interestingly this blending of biology and math is a kind of like an assemblage itself, if I recall correctly, Keener mentioned that he had to learn a bit about biology in approaching this task. His talk compared and contrasted the technical vocabulary of Biology and Math and discussed the ways in which his mathematics background for concepts like [DIVIDE] conflicted with the biological sense of [DIVIDE] – check out his semantics negotiation in his lecture I linked to above. Anyway, Keener’s research embodies the kind of interdisciplinary mentality that breeds accelerated progress. It is the hybridization of skill sets to solve traditionally non-approached riddles of science.
Hemisphere Games, the developers of OSMOS, brilliantly designed this puzzle game in a way that requires gamers to be whole-brain thinkers that synthesize ambiguity and precision in order to achieve goals through strategies like size modulation and time warping, et cetera. This is the kind of game that enables people to foster the kind of thinking that people like Keener embody in their research practice. This is the kind of thinking that I want to continue to develop as I entertain the notions of human enhancement and how culture changes along the trajectory of technological human enhancement.
If you have an iPad I strongly encourage you to download OSMOS from the apps store; if you don’t have an iPad, this game makes purchasing one worth while… That said, OSMOS is available for other platforms (both Mac & PC). Take the time to visit their website and read the other reviews.
[Special thanks to Hemisphere Games for the kind permission to use these images.]