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Design Language: Design by Darwin

Veteran game designer Noah Falstein (Sinistar, Koronis Rift) commemorates Charles Darwin's birthday with an insightful look at how Darwin's evolutionary ideas have influenced game design.

[Veteran game designer Noah Falstein (Sinistar, Koronis Rift) commemorates Charles Darwin's birthday with an insightful look at how Darwin's evolutionary ideas have influenced game design.]

Charles Darwin was born on February 12th, 1809. In the intervening years his ideas about evolution, the origin of species, natural selection, and sexual selection have revolutionized our understanding of biology and the interconnectedness of all living things on Earth.

But his ideas are also directly and indirectly resonate with many fundamental aspects of game design, and the game industry in general.

For someone who lived long ago in a time far-removed from computer technology, it's remarkable the effect he has had on games. Of course, Abraham Lincoln, born on the very same day, also had a powerful effect on the course of history -- but nowhere near as much relevance to game design (Sid Meier's Gettysburg! notwithstanding).

An article about games is not the place to delve into the explanation of Darwin's marvelous insights, but there are many books, web sites, and TV programs that teach the theory of evolution with greater clarity that I could manage myself. I would personally recommend the book The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins as a good place to start.

This article will, however, explore a few of the many ways that Darwin's ideas about evolution and natural selection (and the intellectual descendants of those ideas) influence the game industry and game design in particular.

Survival of the Funnest

First, consider some of the direct ways that evolutionary biology has directly influenced the development of games. There are a long string of games that deal with creatures that change and evolve over the course of multiple generations.

Often these games don't follow the literal understanding of how evolution works in the real world, since it is a basic game design principle to adapt reality and make it more fun.

For instance, I believe there is a good case for the argument that the process of leveling up in role-playing games owes a lot of its popularity and acceptance to people instinctively feeling it is related to the way the real world works in an abstract sense.

Admittedly, the evolution of a horseshoe crab's shell to protect it against predators is a big step from gaining enough strength points to be able to carry plate armor in a standard fantasy RPG, but the parallels are there.

There are also many more direct connections. A fairly obscure boardgame released in 1980, Quirks: The Game of Unnatural Selection (from the people that also made Cosmic Encounter) was quite literally about evolution of plants and animals in a gradually changing natural environment.

It verged on Stealth Learning, where the point of the game is to have fun, but you learn a lot about a subject (evolution in this case) in order to succeed at the game.


Quite similar in spirit to Quirks but much more detailed and serious was Will Wright's SimLife: The Genetic Playground, released in 1992. Creatures, a British game released in the U.S. by Mindscape in 1996, actually employed artificial life principles based on an understanding of genetics and evolution to let the player breed generations of computer-controlled creatures.

Two sequels to Creatures took that theme and (of course!) evolved it into more complex forms. There have been dozens games based on ideas of genetic engineering, including all the games based on Jurassic Park and its sequels. And Will Wright's recent magnum opus Spore, released in 2008, is rich with game elements inspired by scientific understanding of evolution.

Spore is contemporary, ambitious, and successful -- and so deserves some extra examination. At its heart the game could be said to be not about evolution, but in fact about intelligent design -- after all, the creatures in the game are gradually improved and perfected not by random chance as Darwin would have it, but by the choices a Deity-like player makes. And yet I also think this is evolution in intelligent design's clothing.

It's not hard to see that if everyone playing made random choices while modifying their creatures, they might individually often fail, but over time a complex world would result.

Are the players each really "intelligent designers", or merely the equivalent of cosmic radiation? Even deeper philosophical and cosmological questions are left as an exercise to the player, which is ultimately I think the most interesting thing about Spore as a source of discussion.

EA/Maxis' Spore

I think Will Wright is too good a designer to let literal truth get in the way of fun -- but even so the game does more to educate players at a nearly subconscious level about how the processes of natural selection can work, and he does so in a way more enjoyable than many textbooks or classes.

I have known Will since his early SimCity days and even during the creation of that game he was an avid reader on principles of evolutionary biology, and some of the ideas underlying his work, regarding new concepts as colonizing a possibility space, and visualizing games as inhabiting virtual landscapes were heavily influenced by cutting-edge evolutionary biology studies and Chaos Theory.

Unnatural Selection

Darwin and his ideas have influenced game development on other less direct levels. I have found that game designers often use their understanding of evolution and human history to explain the popularity of certain types of games, or to modify them to make them more popular.

For instance, a huge number of games use the metaphor of lives, either directly in a FPS or RPG where you have a character that risks death, or more abstractly as in platformers and casual games that give you a number of lives to expend in a quest for your goal.

Even abstractly, life and death struggles key into our more basic survival instincts and get us to care about the decisions we make in game. In fact an MMORPG like World of Warcraft is just full of elements that would have been familiar to and crucial to survival of our primate ancestors.

Elements like life and death struggle, tribal allegiances, division of labor among specialties so your group or tribe can flourish, and wilds to explore filled with dangerous creatures are all things we have been hard-wired by evolution to care about deeply.

This sort of understanding of human evolution also helps explain the fascination that children have with animals. For all of human history, learning about which animals can harm us and which ones are friendly or useful is a major survival trait, and it's no surprise that children have evolved to care about those questions.

The ones who didn't have the predisposition to learn were probably often eaten before having their own children. But it may be surprising to realize that this is a large factor in the commercial success of games such as Pokémon and Animal Crossing.


The Meme Meme

Darwin's thinking has gone well beyond his original imagination. In Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene he coined the term "meme" to mean a unit or element of cultural ideas and practices, transmitted from one mind to another, much like genes are transmitted from one generation to another.

For example, the very concept of a meme is a meme -- and I have just transmitted it into your mind. If this is the first time you are hearing of it, it has reproduced, and if you find it interesting enough to repeat to someone else it may thrive and expand more.

A game mechanism, like the idea of having multiple lives that are expended in a game and earned through scoring points, is a meme that was established early in the arcade game industry and spread widely from one game to another, with modifications over time. This sort of co-opting of evolution by analogy is rampant throughout the games industry.

It may seem forced to speak of game mechanisms evolving when they are in fact appropriated by other designers swapping (or stealing!) ideas and not truly living and reproducing on their own. But it turns out that some forms of bacteria swap genes with each other in a phenomenon called "horizontal gene transfer".

Often the natural world is more complex and surprising than we realize. And if game design is more like the process of intentional genetic engineering than like natural selection, it still owes a lot to Darwin.

The Origin of Genres

Another example of his contribution is the way we look at game genres that I have been referring to throughout this article. In many ways a game genre is like a biological class or order of living things. Just as people are of the order of primates, within the class of mammals, an MMORPG is an order of the larger class of RPG.

Of course this is only an analogy, but a surprisingly apt one. We often refer to a genre that has fallen out of favor as a "dinosaur", or talk about how the modern concept of first-person shooters is "evolving" to include more sophisticated storytelling.

Certainly games compete on the open market, and something very like evolution happens based on their ability to succeed financially -- and "reproduce" by spawning sequels or imitations. In a similar way, game consoles are said to evolve, adding features, competing with each other.

It's more than just an interesting analogy, since it is possible to use an understanding of the principles of evolution to consider how to make a particular game more viable and competitive in the economic environment.

For instance, the current members of this generation of consoles each have to adapt to the fast-growing demand for inexpensive downloadable content, and the sudden rise in popularity of casual games of many types.

The one slowest to respond, or inefficient at using the new delivery systems will likely "die off" in the next generation of game systems. Of course consoles are not living things, but are built by companies -- but companies also exist in a fast-evolving Darwinian landscape of competition.

I have only touched on a few ways that Darwin's thinking has influenced our industry and game design in particular.

But in doing so I may have planted a meme in your brain that, in time, will evolve into a whole new game mechanism -- or perhaps a new game genre. Happy Birthday, Charlie!

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