Evolve & Conquer: Teaching Evolution via an Engaging Multiplayer Video Game

Cross-posted from the Adami Lab website.

Teaching with games has been one of the buzz topics in pedagogy lately. Although video games aren’t a formal teaching method by any means, many education scientists suggest games increase intrinsic (self-) motivation to learn, augment information retention, and enable students to learn for longer periods of time beyond the normal attention span (of about 40 minutes). As one of its stated missions, BEACON wishes to educate the public about evolution. A possible means to accomplish this would be a full-fledged, engaging video game that is fun to continually play while teaching evolution. (Which, admittedly, can be a difficult task!)

Thus, a few members of Dr. Chris Adami’s lab at Michigan State University started the “Evolve and Conquer” (E&C) game project. In short, E&C will be a multiplayer video game (similar in play style to Starcraft and Warcraft), which allows players to experience “evolution in action” first-hand. Instead of directly teaching evolution, we make it a part of the video game such that players who wish to excel in the game would benefit by learning the concepts of evolution; for example, maintaining variation in your population (“clan”) of warriors will make it easier to adapt to and defeat a new enemy clan of warriors. In the following demonstration, we will give you a sneak peek at some of the core game mechanics.

Unit control and navigation

Players control the nanobots (“warriors”) with standard Real-Time Strategy controls. Left-clicking on units selects them, then right-clicking on the terrain gives them the order to move. Here, the nanobot is commanded to collect resources while automatically avoiding obstacles in the terrain.

Realistic physics

E&C will feature NVIDIA’s PhysX physics engine, which comes packaged with Unity3D. In E&C, physics will play a large role in the nanobots’ interactions in the world. Nanobots will have to adapt to challenging physical obstacles such as physical barriers, wind, mud, rockslides, and even meteor showers.

Combat / “survival of the fittest”

Beyond the physical environment, nanobots may be forced into direct conflict with alien species. This video demonstrates the combat system, where the nanobots are ordered to attack the hostile alien species. In battle, only the strongest species survive. Thus, the nanobots experience survival of the fittest.

Reproduction

Of course, the nanobots must be able to reproduce in order to evolve. This video shows how nanobots reproduce. Whenever the nanobot consumes three resource cubes, it is able to produce an offspring.

Inheritance with variation

Here, an army of nanobots are producing offspring en masse. Each offspring inherits the traits of its parent, though some of the offspring experience slight changes (“mutations”) and become larger, faster, stronger, etc.

Limited resource competition

Not only do nanobots have to weather a hostile physical environment and survive combat with alien species, they have to compete for limited resources to reproduce as well. In this video, two nanobots forage for resources and reproduce after they have gathered 3 resource cubes. In this case the larger, faster nanobot outcompetes the smaller, slower nanobot.

Automatic foraging and reproduction

If you don’t feel like micro-managing the forage-and-reproduce process of your nanobots, you can order them to automatically forage and reproduce by themselves. In this video, a smaller, faster nanobot competes for limited resources with a larger, slower nanobot. If we let this run for an extended period of time, the faster nanobot would sweep the population. Thus, E&C is a full-fledged simulation of evolution by natural selection.

Feel free to leave feedback on our lab page. We hope to have a public playable demo soon, so keep an eye out!

About Danielle Whittaker

Danielle J. Whittaker, Ph.D. Managing Director of BEACON
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