Can a Video Game Teach Evolution?S

Last week Electronic Arts was kind enough to invite me to a demonstration of Spore's creature creator. A few days ago, we told you about Spore, a video game that challenges you to guide a single cell on the bottom of the evolutionary ladder out of the ocean and into civilization. (Here you can see my creature, Chlorophyta complexus chainsawus - AKA the Chlororaptor.) It's not easy for a video game to teach the principles of evolution. Evolutionary games would necessarily be limited to pressing start and watching what happens as mutation and selection occur, without intervention from the player. Spore strikes a good balance between scientific fact and playability.

The creator creator allows you to design a unique look for your critter, and to pack it with attributes that will aid it in its quest for survival. A social animal will have to make friends and influence creatures. A herbivore can only eat fruit it can reach, and a predator can only feed on prey it can outrun or outfox and outfight. You can guess which path my Chlororaptor is designed to take.

Your critter's biology - the choices that you made while creating and upgrading your creature - will influence the culture that develops as your creature moves into the civilization phase of the game. Twitchy many-eyed herbivores built by nature to constantly search for and flee from trouble do not easily develop into Klingons. The game is likely to be more forgiving than evolution, but one can imagine a player sighing, "The appendix...what was I thinking?" You can also add my creatures to your games. Spore is kind enough to keep track of the statistics, giving me a chance to see how successful my voracious sack of algae tends to be.

Environment, change, and consequence aren't the whole story, but they are a pretty good introduction. As a teacher I've always been interested in entertainment that manages to educate without being obnoxious. If science is done entirely without a sense of play it ends up being wearisome and fruitless. And Spore isn't the only game to figure that out.

Programs like Folding@home use your home computer or Playstation 3 to process the dynamics of protein folding. Proteins are long chains of amino acids that are wadded together in specific ways. Fold them into the wrong shape, and at best you'll have a nonfunctional protein. At worst, you could be looking at the beginning of Alzheimer's. The math to describe protein folding is typically too much for a single computer to handle, but thousands of idle PS3s between games of Call of Duty 4 can do a lot of sums.

Can a Video Game Teach Evolution?S

With apologies to the King of All Cosmos, this is how I imagine Folding@home on a PS3.

Foldit takes this approach a step further. Instead of taking advantage of computers, Foldit takes advantage of users. Teams of folders compete to produce the best 3D shape for a given protein. Human beings are good at manipulating 3D shapes and solving puzzles - computers aren't, or, at least, aren't yet. Given the rules of how different pieces of a protein will interact with one another, what likely shapes will it assume? Give a computer this problem and it will laboriously and ponderously churn its way to an answer that might be obvious to you or I (for a simple protein). Give the same computer the wrong algorithm or starting conditions, and you'll get nowhere fast.

Can a Video Game Teach Evolution?S

Dr. Leeroy Jenkins prematurely rearranges a protein, much to the chagrin of his Foldit guild.

Games like this take advantage of what NYU digital studies professor Clay Shirky has called the cognitive surplus - the spare time to ponder and participate that technology and culture have been steadily generating ever since the human race moved past subsistence. Though some of the surplus ends up devoted to projects like Wikipedia, much of it is naturally expended creating and consuming art and entertainment. The amount of work required to appreciate entertainment varies, but many would argue that the complexity of popular television narratives has increased significantly. A good narrative is a puzzle with people in it, and requires a bit of that cognitive surplus to enjoy.

The alternate reality game I Love Bees tapped into that surplus with a vengeance. A beekeeper's website begins to display disjointed and enigmatic fragments of text. What follows is a complex narrative involving the Halo universe and an damaged artificial intelligence. Players were rewarded for solving puzzles given to them by the game team with a new clue or an advancement of the plot towards. In Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming, Dr. Jane McGonigal discusses how players - without prompting from the game team - naturally developed strategies for distributing workload and solving puzzles efficiently. Given a list of numbers that could be GPS coordinates, the mathematically inclined began working out alternate theories while the more physically adventurous (and geographically fortunate) began visiting locations and looking for commonalities. A relay puzzle required the communication of facts given to the players via payphone increasingly quickly to the next player at a distant payphone - one break in the chain, and that part of the narrative ends. Despite a scant 15-second pause from one call to the next during the most challenging part of the puzzle, the players never wavered. Another part of the game involved an artificial computer language, which the players were so successful at deciphering that, by the end of the game, the game team was using the player documentation to write hints.

Expert analysis of data, peer review, and the effective coordination of large groups in an emergency emerged in-game. These are talents that are useful for more than finding out what happened to a fictional bee fancier's web page. The energy, brilliance, and sheer bloody-mindedness of your gamers is a largely untapped resource. I imagine Final Fantasy minigames where players fold magical widgets into protein shapes for bonuses, or an alternate reality game where FEMA takes notes. Hybridize real problems with compelling narratives, and you may find that you and your guild inadvertently cured cancer.