Digital Evolution: What Can Gaming Teach Us About Where Life Came From And Where It's Heading?

Article by Dylan Reed | 13 Feb 2009

In answer to the question posed by the event's title, 'not much' was the general consensus, at this well attended, thought-provoking discussion. 'But just you wait,' was another well-developed theme - the relationship between evolution and technology is just getting started.

On Saturday 7 February, the discussion 'Digital Evolution: What Can Gaming Teach Us About Where Life Came From And Where It's Heading?' was held by The Skinny in collaboration with the ESRC Genomics Forum, as part of the UNESCO City of Literature series of events running throughout the month. Obviously our 'review' isn't going to be objective, but it was a fascinating occasion, so it'd be worth going into some of the discussion points, at least briefly, for the benefit of those who weren't there.

After an introduction by chair Dr Steve Sturdy, Dr Alistair Elfick of Edinburgh University opened the talks by introducing his field, 'synthetic biology', which is a new area of research that seeks to streamline 'genetic engineering' processes by applying carefully designed engineering principles to genetic structures (the irony being that 'genetic engineering' involves very little if any engineering, whereas 'synthetic biology' is, really, a matter of engineering genetics). Elfick's analogy to account for the need for this new subject was to describe traditional genetic engineering as being like throwing heaps of steel and concrete into a valley until you could cross it, and then calling it 'a bridge'. Naturally, there is a great deal of digital modeling required for synthetic biology to work, and Elfick said he could envisage a future when these systems could overlap more with 'simulation'-type games.

He then went on to analyse the recent, high-profile game Spore, explaining that although the game has explicit evolutionary themes (you start as a bacterium and develop until you become a complex creature) it is also explicitly non-evolutionary: for reasons of gameplay you can freeze development, go back and unmake decisions. This is not the case with Darwinian evolution - quite the opposite in fact (meaning Spore has more in common with 'intelligent design' in this respect).

Elfick then explained how Spore has taken on evolutionary characteristics, in that open-forum elements of the game that have been released online have been hacked and honed by gamers, effectively evolving the software. Identification of this more social form of evolution, which neatly led on to the more human-based perspective of the next panelist, award-winning science fiction author Ken MacLeod.

MacLeod, whose works frequently use projections of a utopian future to explore socialist and libertarian ideas and models, has, like many science fiction authors, a strong grasp of the scientific principles that make their highly imagined scenarios plausible. Proving this early on, MacLeod began by identifying the core principles of Darwin's theory, and observing that these still hold today. He then touched on such themes as transhumanism and artificial intelligence, before concluding with a challenging philosophical question about the nature of reality as perceived by a human or a simulated consciousness.

After such considered presentations, plenty of questions followed, from an audience that included game and simulation designers, and another well-known science fiction author, Charles Stross, amongst a healthy range of interested attendees. While the overall answer to the core question was cautious, it's safe to say everyone who attended will have had an enlightening experience, and enjoyed plenty of insights into the developing relationship between the digital and the evolutionary.