Evolution in Gaming
I could reasonably be described as an evolution fanboy. I don’t have formal training, but I consume all of the material I can on the subject and squee all over new fossils and hitherto unknown species. Consequently, as a gamer, any game that claims to have some element of “evolution” in it has an disproportionate appeal to me and subsequently, disproportionate disappointment. That is, of course, because evolution is typically used quite wrongly.
Pokemon, for example, uses it to describe a completely different but real biological process. I guess “metamorphoses” didn’t test as well in the focus groups. It hurts me on the inside when a caterpillar (caterpie) “evolves” into a chrysalis (metapod) and then “evolves” into a butterfly (butterfree). That’s the default example for metamorphosis. Gah!
A slight improvement on that idea is a classic Super Nintendo Game called E.V.O. Search for Eden (I don’t think the E.V.O. actually stands for anything) It was a mediocre platformer in which the creature you controlled “evolved” throughout levels of play. It was the magic of Gaia that transformed you, though, so at least it’s not quite claiming to be evolution. Also, to its credit, the game passes through several real geologic ages between levels with elapsed time-spans stated.
Spore is probably the most famous “evolution” game. I include scarequotes because it, again, does not simulate evolution. There are some concessions made to actual evolution, but not many. The lifeforms you control nominally pass through the broad stages of life observed on our planet and change only happens when a new generation is born. However, speciation is instant, and the player has complete control over the outcome. It misses all the really intriguing parts of evolution: randomness, selective pressure, drift.
Spore, and many similar games, are god games, rather than evolution simulators. They are sandboxes for deities to change things at their whim. It gives a frightening glimpse of what a world might look like if it were populated with creatures designed by gods like ourselves, mostly grotesque monstrosities, imitations of our favorite cartoons, and replicas of our own genitalia… come to think of it, that may be a better explanation for the state of affairs than many major religions.
While I enjoy the experience of these god games, I feel like it’s missing an aspect of exploring the possibilities.
One reason that I find evolution so compelling is the idea that nothing about our world is a necessary endpoint for the evolutionary process. We exist by chance. Various selective pressures, coincidences and natural events led to the world we know. Evolution isn’t trying to reach any kind of end goal, it’s just walking randomly through a fatally cruel obstacle course and rewarding the survivors with the chance to let their offspring try their luck at it as well.
I had not yet encountered a game that allowed that cruel reality to be the guiding principle.
Species can barely be called a game. It’s more like a simulator. It starts by generating an island with a single species of land dwelling spheroids. You are then given control, but not the control of a creator god. You play as a tinker god, a scientist with control over the general fertility and climate of an island. You have the ability to feed, move and kill creatures. But you cannot influence their behavior. They simply live out their lives and breed and mutate as the random look-up table dictates. They evolve by being selected for and against, generation by generation. Those that get food and survive, breed. Those that don’t, die. Remarkable diversity develops from these simple principles.
You can also drive evolution in a direction if you like, but not directly. You can deploy rovers to feed or kill creatures with specific traits. I made an attempt to create apatosaurus-like mega-fauna. I set a half dozen rovers out to feed big, long necked, tree loving creatures and to kill small aggressive ones and then did what any biologist does, left the experiment to run. The dominant species on my little island when I woke was… well… this.
It was a large, angry predator. I had a few massive long-necked creatures roaming about, but the robots fed them so they just stood about waiting to be fed. They didn’t defend themselves, they didn’t need to. The competition on the island had become, over the course of the night, to see what species would best be able to eat my creepy massive tree-hugging meat factories. (Note, they did not look like sauropods. They were bipedal and had no eyes.)
I can’t call this a game, but I love it. I recommend it in the same way I recommend Universe Sandbox. It’s a way to learn and explore. You are given a degree of control, but all you can really do is sit and watch the consequences of your actions. You get to interfere, not design.
I would really love to see a deeper version of this game. As it stands all you get are land creatures, no plants, no diseases, no birds or fish. All animals are only indiscriminate carnivores or herbivores. I wonder how much deeper you could go with sexual selection and climatic regions. I wonder if modern desktop computers have the processing power to grind out that simulation in a compelling way. If they could, I would lose much of my time to being a tinker-god.
If you’re in the mood for something a little less intense, I can recommend a simple Flash game called Who Wants to Live a Million Years. It is a natural selection simulator along the same lines as Species but is much much simpler. It is fun and a little silly and comes with a little primer on the basics of natural selection, which might be useful for getting kids to learn a bit about it.
Thanks Rebecca Watson for pointing us to Species and Critical Dragon1177 for forwarding on Who Wants to Live a Million Years