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It's Just a Game

I have never been much of a gamer, at least not since PacMan and Space Invaders disappeared from the arcades (shortly before the arcades disappeared from shopping malls, which was not long before shopping malls went out of favor). I have played Call of Duty a few times, but without my son’s Med Kit to save me, I would not have lasted long. The life-like qualities of this and other newer games are astonishing.

Many of us view video games as a classic waste of time, something you do while sitting on the couch munching Doritos – say, for example, during a pandemic. They are often blamed for America’s obesity problem, as well as the lost-opportunity cost of not reading, learning a new language, or pursuing a musical instrument. Only more recently have psychologists begun to recognize some benefits of playing video games.

Video games have been cited as good training for manual dexterity and are correlated with surgical skills for advanced medical procedures. They have found use in physical therapy for stroke victims. They also improve brain connectivity – basically a workout for the gray matter in our skulls – aiding memories, spatial navigation, and muscle control. Improvements in vision, persistence and mental health have been associated with video games by various researchers. Most advanced multi-level video games involve complex situations, making them good tools for developing problem solving skills. Whether the psychologists publishing these studies were gamers themselves is unclear.

It is a safe bet that few if any of these benefits would be realized with video games which play themselves. Once such “game” that has held my fascination over many years is the cellular automaton conceived by Cambridge mathematician Dr. John Conway.

As a youngster with an incipient interest in science, I looked forward to each new issue of Scientific American, where I would usually head straight for the Mathematical Games column of Martin Gardner. Years later, while I was a college engineering student, Dr. Conway sent a 12-page letter to Mr. Gardner, suggesting a multitude of ideas for his column. On page 9, under the heading “The Game of Life”, the basic rules for his cellular machine were laid out.

The playing field consists of a grid of little squares and at each tick of the clock, the squares turn black or white according to a prescribed set of rules based on the state of the surrounding squares. Martin Gardner called this a “fantastic solitaire pastime”, while Dr. Conway saw it as a “no-player, never-ending game.” It was the least favorite of all of Conway’s proposals for Gardner’s column, and yet it was the one for which he received the most notoriety.

As more people watched this allegedly “mindless” field of blinking squares, some began to notice special patterns and structures. One of the first of these to emerge was the “glider”, a five-celled creature that wiggles across the field. The “glider gun”, which produces a steady stream of gliders came about shortly thereafter. Also documented in the early days was the “blinker”, which behaves just as the name suggests. As recently as 2018, a special “spaceship” (named Sir Robin) was discovered. For those who believe this all sounds rather frivolous, it should be noted that The Game of Life inspired the incorporation of cellular automata in the field of complexity science, where the technique was used to simulate ants, traffic patterns and cloud behavior.

Dr. Conway once confessed that he used to go around saying “I hate Life”, but when people began introducing him as “John Conway, Creator of Life”, he rather liked it. Some of his fellow mathematicians describe Life as a gateway drug, leading newcomers into an infinite new universe of different Life-like rules.

The Game of Life may not train surgeons or teach problem solving, but it is far from trivial entertainment. Spend a little time with Life, and it will soon become apparent that a tiny change in the starting conditions can have a profound effect on the output, which may include total annihilation (a blank field), total never-ending chaos, or a frozen pattern that never changes. It is fascinating to observe how a very simple beginning can sometimes lead to a great deal of complexity. Mathematician John Allen Paulos remarked that Life’s most vital lesson is that “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.”

The course of Life is not predictable, but neither is it random. An example of The Game of Life is shown in the three sequential frames at the top of this article. Once the clock is started, “LiFE” soon dissolves into near total chaos and finally ends up with the little black square which never changes. Dr. Conway referred to this final pattern as a “still life”, for which there is no Med Kit.

LiFE, it seems, is a lot like life.



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