[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.
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.