Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Maxis' forgotten game

Maxis has quite a record in providing interesting simulation games since they came out with SimCity. The game SimLife: The Genetic Playground, however, never became a hit. In the game you can simulate an ecosystem including a climate simulation, a plant groth model and a complex model of animals including herbivores (plant eaters), carnivores (meat eaters), and filter feeders. Not enough, they added an evolution model including genes and phenotypes for all plants and animals.
At this point it becomes clear why this game was without success: it is more a research simulation than an actual game. The number of statistics and graphs also support this impression. Moreover, I guess that the actual processing power at the beginning of the nineties did not allow for extensive simulation experiments. Another distinctive feature between a game and a scientific experiment: a game is designed to give the player a fair chance of success (at least in the lower level). In contrast, SimLife simulations tend to end up in extinct animals and low-diversity flora very often. For example, Spore (from Electronic Arts, which bought Maxis some time ago) has a similar scenario, but is designed as a game. I was not really able to create a stable ecology with more than 5 different species, but still I prefer SimLife over Spore.

In overall, SimLife is interesting from a complex systems point of view even still today. If you want to try it, find it at some abandonware site and run it using an emulator, e.g. dosbox.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Evolving cooperative behavior with neural controllers

In a computer experiment, we have investigated the evolution of cooperative behavior in multi-player games. Players were randomly mixed into groups and had the chance to increase their investment by paying money into a pot where it was multiplied. However, the payout money was evenly distributed to all of the players regardless of their contribution. So a freerider could get money without paying into the pot as long as some others did.
The players were controlled by a neural network that controlled the setting strategy. Using our evolutionary design tool FREVO, we evolved the behavior in order to maximize the profit for each player. There was a pool of players controlled by neural networks. After several rounds, the more successful (thus richer) individuals were allowed to stay in the pool and produce more offspring than the less successful ones.
In the first scenario the payout was the pot times three. So if, everybody would cooperate, you can earn your money gets tripled. If the maximum bet was 20$ this means a 60$ return, in other words a 40$ revenue. But if everybody in a group pays in, it's even better to defect - let's say five out of six cooperate, you get a 50$ revenue.
The game was played iteratively 10 rounds. Originally, we expected a strategy like Tit-for-Tat to evolve and prevail. However, defection turned out to be the only stable strategy. For each system state, individuals with the defecting gene could make more revenue. In other words, ruthless behavior paid off.
The situation changed, when we introduced a "synergy factor" into the payoffs. This meant that the money of cooperating players was not multiplied linearly, but over proportionally. Assume you are working with some colleagues on a common project, let's say writing a book. If you alone invest enough time into you chapter, the book still sucks because of the other chapters which are lame or missing. If half of the authors cooperate, the book might be accepted by a mediocre publisher, but still would not be that promising. But if everybody cooperates, the result is not double the revenue of the 50% case but much more!
In the experiment we reflected this issue by a quadratic factor in the pot function. Evolving the stable strategies again showed that after some generations of defecting players, cooperation evolved as a stable strategy!

This still gives hope for our civilization - although reading the daily newspaper does not always feed this hope.