Thursday 14 January 2010

Perfection would be a fatal flaw for evolution

Delving into the zeitgeist of the week, Brian Green’s got an excellent blog post up on The Innovation Paradox. Alongside Melmoth’s dictionary heroics I pondered the line “I think most thinking people agree that MMOs have evolved over time.” Obviously that’s “evolved” in the general “gradual change over time” sense, but I thought it might be fun to consider MMOGs in terms of evolutionary biology, an idea with only two flaws: firstly everything I know about evolution comes from flipping through Wikipedia for five minutes (this is how I know evolution is a quadruped with four legs, a heart and a beak for eating honey, which lives in large rivers such as the Amazon), and secondly any posting about evolutionary biology and innovation in MMOs tackles a ferociously controversial subject which almost nobody can agree on. And evolution (aaah, I confounded your expectations and from thence the humorous allelomorph arose).

Something that struck me from an Introduction to Evolution was:
“Evolution is not progress. Evolution is not “improvement”; it is simply change. These changes can be positive, negative, or neutral, depending on the situation. Evolution may seem progressive at times, because beneficial traits tend to out-compete less helpful traits under selection. However, evolution does not aspire toward any goal; there is no such thing as ‘backward evolution’ or ‘de-evolution’ because there is also no ‘forward evolution’ — evolution does not move in any particular direction.”

Change “the situation” to “the player’s perspective”, and that’s an interesting take on it. Obviously there’s an instant problem in that changes in MMOGs tend to be deliberate design decisions rather than random mutations (despite the theories of forum denizens about the number of monkeys and typewriters employed by dev teams), but as soon as you try and map that back to evolutionary biology then terms like “eugenics” and “intelligent design” start bubbling around and we have to deploy the emergency inflatable badger. Look everyone, a badger! Focus on the badger now! Look at the lovely badger!

Phew. Think we got away with that.

Another interesting snippet was about peacock tails. Evolution has resulted in big, flashy tails, despite the fact that they don’t instantly appear to help out in “survival of the fittest” stakes; they’re a hindrance if anything, but (and I paraphrase ever so slightly here, apologies for the highly technical terms) chicks dig the crazy feathers. I’m not sure if that works a parable for the importance of graphics in a game (people might say gameplay is king and flashy graphics aren’t everything, but… chicks dig the crazy feathers), but it’s kinda fun.

Then there’s role of environment; traits which are highly desirable in one set of circumstances prove catastrophic in another, typified by island birds that thrive with an abundant source of food and no predators but are virtually defenceless when predators do turn up. Has the landscape changed around the traditional MMOG as feral online consoles and browser games snap at its heels, and if so is it destined to become extinct like the Dodo, barely cling on thanks to conservation efforts like the Kakapo (hero of one of the greatest moments of the recent “Last Chance to See” with Mark Carwardine & Stephen Fry), or evolve a new defence mechanism?

Weaving in another strand, there was another excellent post on Vicarious Existence about the danger of nostalgia, which made me wonder if, in a hypothetical future where a very distant ancestor of the Kakapo had learned to fly to evade predators, you’d get a couple of them sitting on a branch reminiscing:
“Man, remember when we walked everywhere? That was brilliant wasn’t it, none of this knackering flapping business, why does nobody walk any more? Things were so much better in the old days, I can’t understand why it got much worse, let’s start walking again Geoff, come on!”

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