Influential first-person shooter Doom can run on just about anything, from ATM machines to pregnancy tests and beyond, including blockchain networks. But even with a fervent group of fans hellbent on porting Doom to everything, this example is way out of left field.
A new student study out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) says that Doom could theoretically run using E. coli bacteria. First reported by Rock Paper Shotgun, the experiment continues the trend of showing that the classic game can run on nearly anything—though it doesn’t sound like it’d be a particularly pleasant play experience.
“To run ‘Doom,’ all one needs is a screen and willpower,” MIT biotech graduate student researcher Lauren “Ren” Ramlan said.
In her report, Ramlan proposed using E. coli cells contained in a 32×48 well plate connected to a display controller. Inside the plate, the wells function as pixels. A display controller translates the graphics of Doom into signals that control the fluorescence of the cells. A video showcases samples of the simulated results.
“I’ve always been drawn to the fun and entertaining side of science. I find bioengineering to be a wonderful yet underutilized avenue for art and creativity, which is what led me to the Media Lab and BE department here at MIT,” Ramlan told Decrypt. “This project is a great example of the type of scientific work I like to pursue—combining genetic engineering with engaging, thought-provoking entertainment.”
Released in 1993, Doom is the story of a lone space marine who ventures from a research facility on Mars into hell to fight a horde of demons. The original Doom is notable for its small file size by today’s standards, but id Software’s game helped influence a thriving genre and has led to an enduring franchise that continues to pump out popular entries.
“The choice of Doom came from its preexisting reputation of unconventional gameplay,” Ramlan said. “I had a great time researching all the wacky devices people had run the game on previously, and wanted to throw my bioengineer hat in the ring.”
The concept of “Doom running on everything” gave rise to a movement aiming to play the game in as many unintended ways as possible, including ATMs, a printer, calculators, lego bricks, and even potatoes.
“What has brought Doom out of the shadows of the 90s and into the modern light is not its riveting gameplay or questionable protagonists, but rather its appealing computational design,” Ramlan wrote. “Built on the id Tech 1 engine, the game was designed to require only the most modest of setups to be played.”
“Neuronal computing has given us neurons capable of controlling flight simulators, piloting robots, playing Pong, and recently, playing Doom itself,” Ramlan said. “However, I argue that programming cells to play Doom is not the same as running the game themselves.”
Ramlan said it took 70 minutes for the E. coli cells to “reach the peak display” in her simulation, and 8 hours and 20 minutes to return to their original state. But before anyone runs out to start collecting E. coli cells, Ramlan noted that fully running the game this way could potentially take centuries.
“The frame rate for the original Doom is capped at 35 frames/second, and the average playthrough time is five hours,” Ramlan said. “Doing the math, this means that it would take 599 years to run Doom on cells, according to this simulation.”
Thanks to its simplistic design, Doom has even found its way onto blockchain networks thanks to upgrades to the Bitcoin and Dogecoin networks. Last year, after the launch of the NFT-like Ordinals protocol in January, a Bitcoin enthusiast inscribed a simplistic clone of Doom on the blockchain.
Earlier this month, pseudonymous contributor Pimax used the Dogecoin version of Ordinals, Doginals, to inscribe a full version of Doom on the meme coin’s blockchain. Thanks to the larger 4.2 MB block size allowed by the Dogecoin blockchain, the full game is playable via a web browser.
“I definitely encourage people to imagine what they would play/display on a cellular system,” Ramlan said. “The opportunities are as diverse as a computer screen… only with a much longer wait time.”
“As unexpected as this project’s popularity was, I’m really glad to see synthetic biology garnering more attention for its creative applications,” she added.
Edited by Andrew Hayward
Editor’s note: This story was updated after publication to add comments from Ramlan.