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Birthdays: The Beginning – evolution, gamified

Think you can drive the very building blocks of life? Matthew Codd gives the evolution simulator Birthdays: The Beginning a hoon and he bloody learns stuff! Creationists need not apply.

Games make fascinating learning tools. I’m not talking about the “edutainment” that many of us remember, with fondness, disdain, or some strange mixture of both, from our primary school IT rooms. (Remember Math Blaster? That game was the business). No, I’m talking about about the games that teach in a more subtle, intrinsic manner: Minecraft and the lessons in maths and engineering that come through playing with LEGO-like blocks; Dynasty Warriors and its detailed depiction of Chinese history, played out through hack-and-slash action; MMORPGs and their focus on teamwork and collaboration in carefully choreographed encounters.

It’s in this tradition that we find Birthdays: The Beginning, a game best described as an evolution simulator. It’s a cute, cartoony “god game” in which you manipulate environmental factors to guide the flow of life’s evolution from single-celled organisms through to homo sapiens (that’s us humans – see, I’m already learning things!).

You oversee a little cube-shaped world, but your options for interacting directly with it are very limited – the bulk of your work is simply raising and lowering land to create mountains, valleys, and oceans. Doing so changes the world’s balance of land and water, which in turn affects things like temperature and moisture levels. With those at the right levels, the primordial ooze can birth your world’s first single-celled organisms, phytoplankton, and over the next few thousand in-game years – played out in mere seconds of real time – these life-forms multiply by the hundreds of thousands. With the phytoplankton creating oxygen and providing a food source, the conditions are ripe for other primitive lifeforms to evolve, in turn allowing others.

And so it goes on, as you birth increasingly complex lifeforms with increasingly complex needs: plants, dinosaurs, mammoths, insects, fish, humans, and plenty of others. Special items are available to help, letting you instigate various kinds of climate change, force the evolution of a species, or create rivers to bring moisture to highlands. These provide some handy shortcuts, but the majority of your involvement still comes from altering the world’s topography to manipulate conditions.

Most organisms require a proliferation of some other creature before their evolution can take hold; other species can’t find their place until the extinction of certain others. More advanced lifeforms have more stringent requirements in terms of temperature, moisture, and geological conditions. The more diverse the ecosystem, the more productive it’ll be, but the harder it becomes to manage, and “success” – whatever you define that to be – ultimately comes down to how you juggle these competing needs. You might try to mimic the evolution of Earth’s life, or go for something different, guiding the path of natural selection to create a world of your own where, for example, dinosaurs and people co-exist.

Birthdays: The Beginning is an oversimplification of the evolutionary process, without a doubt. Millions of real-life species are represented by a mere few hundred in the game, and the science of natural selection and meteorology is certainly more akin to a Wikipedia article than a university textbook. What’s important, though, is that it demonstrates the concept of evolution in a fun, interactive way, showing how all sorts of different factors come together to create the right conditions for life. Simplified though it is, this Birthdays is a great introduction to evolutionary science.

It also offers a subtle but important commentary on climate change. The game’s central challenge involves trying to spark new life while keeping extinction to a minimum, but the latter is nigh inevitable given the requirements for different species. Even altering the world’s temperature just a few degrees to create the right conditions for some particular life-form may result in the death of another, and it’s always disappointing when that happens. Even minor changes can have dramatic consequences, just as is the case in real life.

It’s not an aggressive, moralistic lesson about the dangers of anthropogenic climate change. If anything, it shows that climate change and extinction are as natural as evolution, and all part of a cycle of life and death. However, that all takes place over the course of billions of years (both in the game and in real life), and when you force your hand – say, with an item that institutes global warming – the results can be significant. Birthdays doesn’t hit you over the head and tell you that climate change is bad; it explores how climate change works, and challenges you to really think about its place in the real world.

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