The mechanical properties of the extracellular matrix (ECM) can dictate cell fate in biological systems. In tissue engineering, varying the stiffness of hydrogels - water-swollen polymeric networks that act as ECM substrates - has previously been demonstrated to control cell migration, proliferation, and differentiation. Here, "digital plasmonic patterning" (DPP) is developed to mechanically alter a hydrogel encapsulated with gold nanorods using a near-infrared laser, according to a digital (computer-generated) pattern. DPP can provide orders of magnitude changes in stiffness, and can be tuned by laser intensity and speed of writing. In vitro cellular experiments using A7R5 smooth muscle cells confirm cell migration and alignment according to these patterns, making DPP a useful technique for mechanically patterning hydrogels for various biomedical applications. © 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim.