Artificial Life (Alife) began with a colorful collection of biologists, robot engineers, computer scientists, artists, and philosophers. It is a cross-disciplinary field, although many believe that biologists have gotten the upper-hand on the agendas of Alife. This highly-nuanced debate is alluded to in this article.
What better way to get a feel for the magical phenomenon of life than through simulation games! (You might argue that spending time in nature is the best way to get a feel for life; I would suggest that a combination of time with nature and time with well-crafted simulations is a great way to get deep intuition. And I would also recommend reading great books like The Ancestor’s Tale :)
Simulation games can help build intuition on subjects like adaptation, evolution, symbiosis, inheritance, swarming behavior, food chains….the list goes on.
On the more abstract end of the spectrum are simulation-like interactive experiences involving semi-autonomous visual stuff (or sound) that generates novelty. Kinetic art that you can touch, influence, and witness lifelike dynamics can be more than just aesthetic and intellectually stimulating.
These interactive experiences can also build intuition and insight about the underlying forces of nature that come together to oppose the direction of entropy (that ever-present tendency for things in the universe to decay).
On the less-abstract end of the spectrum, we have virtual pets and avatars (a subject I discussed at a keynote I gave at VISIGRAPP Barcelona).
“Hierarchy Hinders” – Lesson from Spore
Will Wright, the designer of Spore, is a celebrated simulation-style game designer who introduced many Alife concepts in the “Sim” series of games. Many of us worried that his epic Spore would encounter some challenges, considering that Maxis had been acquired by Electronic Arts. The Sims was quite successful, but Spore fell short of expectations. Turns out there is a huge difference between building a digital dollhouse game and building a game about evolving lifeforms.
Also, mega-game corporations have their share of social hierarchy, with well-paid executives at the top and sweat shop animators and code monkeys at the bottom. Hierarchy (of any kind) is generally not friendly to artificial life.
For blockbuster games, there are expectations of reliable, somewhat repeatable behavior, highly-crafted game levels, player challenges, scoring, etc. Managing expectations for artificial life-based games is problematic. It’s also hard to market a game which is essentially a bunch of game-mechanics rolled into one. Each sub-game features a different “level of emergence” (see the graph below for reference). Spore presents several slices of emergent reality, with significant gaps in-between. Spore may have also suffered partly due to overhyped marketing.
Artificial Life is naturally and inherently unpredictable. It is close cousins with chaos theory, fractals, emergence, and uh…life itself.
At the right is a graph I drew which shows how an Alife simulation (or any emergent system) creates novelty, creativity, adaptation, and emergent behavior. This emergence grows out of the base level inputs into the system. At the bottom are atoms, molecules, and bio-chemistry. Simulated protein-folding for discovering new drugs might be an example of a simulation that explores the space of possibilities and essentially pushes up to a higher level (protein-folding creates the 3-dimensional structure that makes complex life possible).
The middle level might represent some evolutionary simulation whereby new populations emerge that find a novel way to survive within a fitness landscape. On the higher level, we might place artificial intelligence, where basic rules of language, logic, perception, and internal modeling of the world might produce intelligent behavior.
In all cases, there is some level of emergence that takes the simulation to a higher level. The more emergence, the more the simulation is able to exhibit behaviors on the higher level. What is the best level of reality to create an artificial life game? And how much emergence is needed for it to be truly considered “artificial life”?
Out Of Control
Can a mega-corporation like Electronic Arts give birth to a truly open-ended artificial life game? Alife is all about emergence. An Alife engineer or artist expects the unexpected. Surprise equals success. And the more unexpected, the better. Surprise, emergent novelty, and the unexpected – these are not easy things to manage…or to build a brand around – at least not in the traditional way.
Maybe the best way to make an artificial life game is to spread the primordial soup out into the world, and allow “crowdsourced evolution” of emergent lifeforms. OpenWorm comes to mind as a creative use of crowdsourcing.
What if we replaced traditional marketing with something that grows organically within the culture of users? What if, in addition to planting the seeds of evolvable creatures, we also planted the seeds of an emergent culture of users? This is not an unfamiliar kind problem to many internet startups.
Are you a fan of artificial life-based games? God games? Simulations for emergence? What is your opinion of Spore, and the Sims games that preceded it?
This is a subject that I have personally been interested in for my entire career. I think there are still unanswered questions. And I also think that there is a new genre of artificial game that is just waiting to be invented…
…or evolved in the wild.
Onward and Upward.