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Evolution as a game

July 16, 2010

Another episode of It Came From Pharyngula. There is a lively discussion taking place there about a little grade-school level biology game called CellCraft, which I will not bother linking (you can find it yourself) due to its ties to intelligent design proponents.

Since ID has already been thoroughly linked to creationism and demonstrated to be creationism in disguise in court, I have no problem dismissing their products as propaganda and lies. Apparently in this case, some game designers simply got taken in. At this point one can see why creationists pursue degrees in science that they don’t personally believe in. The titles are useful.

I went over and played the game some myself, though, and it seemed an interesting way to learn about cell structures and some of the things they do. Unfortunately, reality — unguided biology and chemistry — isn’t much of a game, so the designers (ha) made it an explicitly guided process, to the point of scientists dropping ready-made organelles into their cell ‘character,’ and so the link between the game design and the ID advisors is pretty clear. Apparently the platypus characters in the game may also be a nod to ID tropes.

Reading the comments, I can see that they arrived at the same problem I had: evolution doesn’t make for much of a good game. So in a way, even without the ID adherents suckering the game designers into designing creationist propaganda for childhood indoctrination — remind you of anything else? — the gamers couldn’t win. The question was brought up and PZ decided to shut it down.

Don’t fall for this trick. Now they’re demanding that we say how to make a good evolution game. Here, in the comments of a web site that isn’t much about gaming. That’s just dishonest.

Game design is hard. When you browse through that CellCraft forum, you can see that they were working on figuring out how to make it playable for a long time — you aren’t going to fart out solutions here in a day or two.

At the same time that I agree with PZ, that it’s disingenuous to ask a scientist how to make a good game of science, maybe someone there who plays games or even designs games or did in the past might have some insight.

My own comes from a dubious source, just call it a dream. But I couldn’t help thinking of the game that once came together in my thoughts as I read about this CellCraft business. The one I thought of was a social game like an MMO, an accelerated game of evolution, accelerated to the point that individuals evolved during their lifetimes — ridiculous by the standards of reality, but it was just a game. Likewise ridiculous that single celled animals would be intelligent enough to speak with each other, but otherwise it’d be a pretty quiet social game world.

It was a process many RPG gamers would recognize. In some of these games, your interests make your character change and grow, determine your ‘character class,’ your skills, even guide the course of the game. There were cells that loved to race around the environment, cells that got tough and strong to move things around, cells that explored the environment and learned that it wouldn’t last forever. Evolve a way to fix it, or survive it, or escape it.

Well, at some point I woke up and most of the details were lost, like with all dreams. And I know that, if PZ were to check this out, he’d probably scoff and say that’s not evolution. But anything you can play — guide or influence in some way — is by definition not evolution, which is not a process guided by intelligence. You can’t play evolution. But can we play something like it, and at what point do the changes make it a poor learning tool?

I can agree, having glorified creationists building ‘science’ games is a farce. As for the rest, well, I wonder. I never seem to have any good answers, do I. Just questions. Skepticism is like that.

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