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Design Language: Design by Darwin

February 12, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[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.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Jonathon Walsh
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An interesting read and I enjoyed the article but I'm really disappointed. I was fully expecting to see one of my favorite games mentioned (the one that taught me about evolution in fact).

That game is of course E.V.O ( ).

Joshua Dallman
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I too was surprised to not see E.V.O. up there especially since it is a classic game that's been out forever.

Also relevant to the discussion is indie game Venture Africa which features autonomous AI animals and indirectly teaches about natural selection through its gameplay. Developer Pocketwatch Games did an excellent job at blurring the lines between education and entertainment with the title and received several complaints from religious intelligent design types about the game even though there is no overt messaging within it.

Jamie Mann
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Interesting article, though I don't know if Darwin has had as much of an impact as indicated. The idea of "levelling up" is more likely to have been modelled on martial arts or industry: the idea of working towards a given level of certification has been around long before Darwin!

It's also worth noting that (un)Intelligent Design is far more popular than evolution: from Syndicate to The Sims, the emphasis is generally on the player choosing the path of the gameplay, story and in-game behaviour. There's a good reason for this: evolution is by nature random, which makes it hard to debug or finetune. Black and White is one example of a game which promised a lot from the concept of AI, but ended up being heavily toned down thanks to the unpredictability.

Something more interesting would be to look at the way games themselves have evolved: from Space Panic through to Super Mario Galaxy, 3D Monster Maze to Half Life 2: there's a clear path of evolution, complete with high levels of cross-fertilisation and mutation. Only the strongest genes survive into the next generation, and the cycle then begins anew...

Daniel Kromand
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I think it is interesting that this piece only looks at the notion "survival of the fittest" without expanding on Darwin's own idea of sexual selection among humans. I don't know how it fits into the history of game design, but Darwin argued that human relations are based on altruism and sympathy rather than the feral competition of the natural world.

Tom Newman
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Great great article!!! There are endless parallels between evolution and game design, and it's refreshing to see this insight.

Joseph Vasquez II
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"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."

In many ways a plant type is like a class of car. Just as Ford Mustangs are of the order of sports car sedan, within the class of automobile, a potato is of the order of tuber, of the larger class of plant.


Joseph Vasquez II
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When parallels as contrived as these are used with other topics, we label the article as "silly fanboyism." I read gamasutra everyday instead of joystiq in order to avoid such things.

Robert Zamber
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I agree... "silly fanboyism". Darwin's ideas are really not all that original, nor progressive by any means. Conversely, In many cultures (outside the US of course) Darwin's "theories" (not truth); ironically, are considered crude, and primitive. Its dangerous for any culture, or individual for that matter, to accept a collection of such illusory, half-baked thoughts and ideas as some kind of cornerstone for truth; to build ones collective (or individual) identity. If we want to evolve this industry into something of substance, we should probably avoid Darwin altogether. The Egyptians had ideas about evolution loooooooooooong before "Darwin". We all evolved from Black people, i.e. "Kemet"! Try "Isis Papers".

Michael Gesner
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This article draws an interesting parallel, however I'm surprised Noah did not reference the more direct influence of Darwin in the use of genetic algorithms for the design of more believable (and entertaining) agent behaviors.

This practice of iteration is far more rapid than in the lifecycle of a game archetype and is an excellent example of how Darwin's theories are modeled in our business.

Nonetheless, an excellent article Noah.

Noah Falstein
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Interesting comments, everyone. I admit to never having played E.V.O., but I have of course heard of it and should have looked into it closer. I know of half a dozen that use some aspect of evolution that I didn't reference in the article.

Some other specific responses:

DK, I agree that what Darwin had to say about sexual selection was in fact even more interesting in many ways than survival of the fittest, precisely because it seems so counterintuitive. There are a lot of intriguing things we could discuss about game design through that particular lens - everything from how, in the mid-80's, it became "fashionable' to advertise modem play on the game boxes even though a majority of people buying the games didn't actually have modems - turns out they equated modem play with state of the art games, even though it was irrelevant to their own situation. A similar thing happened a few years later with CD-ROM games debuting, features that are seen as "sexy" are important in deciding to buy a game even if they are functionally irrelevant - even the fact that I can use the term sexy in that context shows how relevant Darwin's ideas are.

JVII, I agree that merely drawing parallels is pretty useless, but I disagree that this is the case here. I think there is a lot we can learn from the way biologists classify living things when we attempt to classify game genres, which, like living things, often have contradictory qualities that make it hard to discern their origins until one looks into their ancestral past. Or to put it in very concrete terms, when working on an adventure game design for a recently-released game (Mata Hari) I thought hard about what features of old adventure games were "adaptive" and helped them succeed in the competitive world of commercial games, and which features were the equivalent of an appendix, perhaps once part of a useful function but now just carried along for the ride, consuming resources.

RZ, I have to take exception to your comments. You seem to imply that Darwin is best revered in the US, which is just not true - take a look at

for example. Darwin didn't invent or discover evolution, but did put together a coherent way to explain the mechanism behind it, and that (as well as some of his other ideas like sexual selection) is certainly why I appreciate him.

MG, thanks! You do point out two more areas where ideas of evolution are even more directly linked to game development - in fact I expect that agile development/scrum/rapid iteration practices could benefit even more than they already have by applying ideas from evolutionary biology.