Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Evolution: the greatest game of all

I concluded my previous post with a brief discussion of strategy-based simulation games.

These games motivate players to find out for themselves how complex situations respond to their actions, interventions and strategies. Complex circumstances that can be simulated by games include any aspect of everyday life (including social interactions, goal setting, and ethical and moral choices), environmental systems, societies, economic arrangements, and political and governmental systems. To succeed in the game, players interact with the simulation to learn the consequences of various choices and actions.

Strategy-based simulation games are particularly suited to exploring the emerging evolutionary worldview. This new worldview locates humanity in a much larger evolutionary process that has a meaningful role for us. It therefore is central in providing science-based answers to the ‘big questions’: What are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going to? What should we do with our lives?

Evolutionary science is developing an understanding of the universe that makes sense of human existence. Far from being a meaningless accident in an indifferent universe, life appears to have a central role in its future.

There is a direction to the evolutionary process that has produced life on Earth and that will determine our future. Importantly, humanity has a role in these larger processes. Whether we fulfill this role effectively will determine whether life on Earth contributes positively to the future evolution of life in the universe. What we do here and now matters in a bigger scheme of things. Humanity has a central role in a great adventure.

To date, evolution on Earth has moved along its trajectory of its own accord. But it will not progress beyond this point unless it is driven forward intentionally. Evolution will continue to advance on this planet only if certain conditions are met: humanity will need to awaken to the fact that we are living in the midst of a meaningful and directional evolutionary process, realize that the continued success of the process depends on us, and commit to intentionally moving the process forward.

If this transition to intentional evolution is to be completed successfully, sufficient numbers of people across the planet will need to develop an understanding of these complex evolutionary processes and their implications for humanity. However it is not easy or straightforward for individuals to build this understanding.

But properly-designed computer games can make a major contribution to overcoming this difficulty. They can graphically simulate evolutionary processes across wide ranges of time and space, motivate the effort required to develop the complex mental models needed to envisage the processes, and facilitate exploration of the consequences of the evolutionary worldview for the individual and for humanity.

Computer games are particularly suited for this task because evolution operates like a game. There are struggles for survival, strategies, competition, and winners and losers. Everything that survives (including all life currently on the planet) is the winner in some evolutionary game, and has been shaped by it.

Looked at from a gaming perspective, evolution can be seen to be ‘The Greatest Game of All’. It is the game in which we, our societies and future humans are all players. Evolution is the game we all play whether we want to or not, or whether we are conscious of it or not. It is the game that sets the context and frame for everything we do in our lives.

Evolutionary games can challenge players to discover and explore strategies that will win evolutionary games in a wide range of circumstances. For example, appropriate simulations could lead players to discover and understand the direction of past evolution on Earth, the direction of human social evolution, why moral and religious systems emerge and why they take the form they do, why we have the types of emotions we experience, how evolution has shaped our motivations, personalities, needs and values, the nature of the next great steps in evolution on Earth, how the critically important step to a unified global society can be organized while maintaining diversity, creativity and freedom, where evolution in the universe might be headed, what humanity might do to contribute positively to this process, and so on.

Of course, the ability of a game to facilitate evolutionary understanding will depend on the relevance and accuracy of its simulations. For example, much that is learnt in playing the game Spore has little to do with actual evolutionary processes or outcomes. And many of the key features of the evolutionary processes that have shaped us and will continue to do so will never be learnt playing Spore.

The evolution of cooperative organization is a very important area for game simulation. The central trend in the evolution of life on Earth has been towards the organization of cooperation over larger and larger scales. Evolution has moved through a sequence of transitions in which smaller-scale entities are organized into larger-scale cooperatives. Self-replicating molecular processes were organized into the first simple cells, communities of simple cells formed the more complex eukaryote cell, organizations of these cells formed multi-cellular organisms, and organisms were organized into cooperative societies. A similar sequence has unfolded in human evolution from family groups, to bands, to tribes, to agricultural communities to city states, to Nations and so on

The next step in this evolutionary trajectory is the formation of a cooperative and sustainable global society.

Games that simulate this trajectory will need to capture the fact that although cooperation is an extremely effective evolutionary strategy, it does not evolve easily. Cooperative organization is easily undermined by free-riders that take the benefits of cooperation without contributing anything in return. Evolution only progresses when it finds a way to suppress free-riding and to align the interests of individuals with the interests of the whole.

When this is achieved, cooperation pays because individuals capture the benefits of their cooperation (and the costs of any harm they visit on others). This is how cooperation has been organized at all levels, including at the level of individual cells, organisms (including humans), corporations, and Nations (for more on the evolution of cooperation, see Chapters 4 to 7 of my book Evolution’s Arrow).

Games that capture these dynamics should be able to explore the evolution of cooperation at all levels, including the forms of organization that will be needed to enable the emergence of a cooperative and sustainable global society.

Computer games that explore the evolutionary worldview can make a major contribution to the awakening of humanity to its role in the evolutionary process. When individuals involve themselves in designing or playing these games, they are therefore participating in a major evolutionary event on Earth – the transition to intentional evolution in which humanity wakes up to what the universe is about and commits to actively advancing the evolutionary process.

A further very important trend in the trajectory of evolution is towards increasing adaptability, creativity, intelligence and consciousness. The furtherance of this trend within humanity requires not only the acquisition of greater knowledge but also enhanced skills and capacities. Computer games that advance this trajectory will therefore have to motivate activities, practices, and experiences that develop these capacities.

This will be the subject of my next post.

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