The rise of real-time strategy (RTS) games back in the ‘90s had such a legacy and cultural impact amongst the male population in the virtual world. Especially in South Korea and the United States, competitive and corporate-sponsored leagues (including participation in Major League Gaming) were created for one of the most popular RTS games in video game history, StarCraft – and yes, I was an avid StarCraft player at the prime age of 12. Although StarCraft possessed most of my time during my adolescent years, I did go to school, get a good education; and here I am now, eons later in medical school now playing StarCraft II (and learning medicine). Every time I go to my immunology class, I can’t help but think about the mechanisms of our immune system as a StarCraft game (the concept can be replaced with any RTS game of your preference). This is not because I believe that life is a game (which some may consider it to be), but there appears to be something very “real-time” and “strategic” about our bodies, particularly how our immune system works in fighting and preventing disease.
The concept of StarCraft and other RTS games is to build a military base, expand, and conquer the enemy. The ways in which to accomplish these objectives include building an array of spectacularly-looking units, matched with equally awesome-looking attacks, upgrades, and special abilities. I would propose that our immune system, although not as colorful and flashy as computer graphics, sort of works in the same way. The immune system is a wonderful and intricate defensive network created to protect a great nation of cells called the human body. It certainly has a command base, it can expand throughout the body, and it serves to conquer enemies – which we will define as pathogens. Likewise, the immune system has units, known as immune cells, leukocytes, white blood cells (all of which are one in the same), that have the ability to attack, upgrade, and certainly have special abilities against specific pathogens.
If we integrate our immune system into an RTS format, it might be described in the following ways. You could consider our bone marrow and thymus as the immune command centers of our body, creating different immune units. These units would most likely venture throughout our bodies into secondary lymphoid organs that we can allude to as bunkers, such as lymph nodes and the spleen, where these immune units can reside and defend. We have large macrophage cell units that phagocytize (eat and destroy) bacteria, which I consider to be the tanks in our immune army. There are other battle cells including natural killer cells, mast cells, and eosinophils each with their respective functions such as specializing in destroying viruses, creating allergic reactions, and defeating parasites. Some cells can even be upgraded such as T and B cells. B cells can be upgraded into plasma cells that create antibodies against pathogens, and T cells can be upgraded to have special effector functions such as being a helper or cytotoxic T cell. Before I bore you with scientific lingo and concepts, let me assure you that our immune system has many cool cells (many of which are not described here) that do a lot of cool things – to put it simply.
The proven concepts and mechanisms of our immune system are vast and cannot be contained in a blog entry (which is why we have immunology textbooks with hundreds of pages), but hopefully I have been able to elucidate the nuance that playing RTS games alludes to what actually happens in real life on a microscopic level. The immune system is a network of many fascinating cells that act as our body’s defense system. In addition, these cells are specialized in what they do, and there are other mechanisms besides cells that help in our defense (e.g. chemicals, proteins, barriers). As individuals with personalities, we think of ourselves with a single identity; however, our individuality is also comprised of billions of cells that have different functions, abilities, and power ups that allow us to be the person that we are. The next time that you play an RTS game, hopefully it will remind you of how your immune cells subconsciously work together to help protect your body.