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Game of Life

Arrow Image A small article examining the influence of Conway's Game of Life on the hacker culture.

The game of life is one of the most culturally significant games ever produced (for the hacker culture at least, and I use the term ‘hacker’ here in the classical sense). The ‘game’ (in fact a cellular simulation) was created in 1970 by John Conway. You play the game by strategically placing cells on a square grid, and then observing their evolution. At first glance, it would appear to be a simplistic puzzle game, however, it is a deeply complex game that relies on countless mathematical algorithms, and thousands of patterns and pattern types have been created for it.

I shall now explain briefly how the game works. The game involves ‘cells’ arranged on a grid of squares, and their lives (and deaths and births) are based on some simple rules. For a cell to remain stable and ‘alive’, and live through to the next generation, it must be surrounded by exactly two or three other cells. However, if a cell is surrounded by only one cell, or no other cells at all, it dies from loneliness, and if a cell is surrounded by more than three cells, it will die from overcrowding. New cells can also be born if an empty block on the grid is surrounded by exactly three other cells. Therefore, a two by two square is the ideal pattern to use, however, that is considered ‘cheating’ as no dots ever move or die, and the pattern remains static and dormant. If an empty cell block is surrounded by three live cells, than it will be born to a new cell.

Each cycle, during which a cell may decide to die or multiply, is called a generation. Successful patterns are often determined by the amount of generations for which the pattern will stay alive. Indeed, the creator of the game started a contest in which he challenged people to come up with an eternal pattern. Bob Gosper (also well known for his work on fractals) won the contest by creating the now legendary ‘glider’ pattern.
In the glider pattern, the dots interact with each other and as they die and evolve, the pattern slowly moves in a right-down direction (it ‘glides’ across the grid, hence it’s name). These glider patterns can then also be created by an ingenious pattern called the ‘glider gun’ (also created by Bob Gosper). The glider gun interacts with itself in such a way that it shoots out glider patterns every 30 generations or so, and yet, never dies. It always reverts to its original pattern during its cycle.
Here is a picture of the famous glider pattern:


Look familiar? Some of you might recognize it as the ‘hacker logo’ (not that hackers actually need a logo to bind them to each other, we’re individuals, right?). It was an American computer programmer called Eric Raymond (who also maintains the well known ‘how to be a hacker’ document, and is the co-founder of the Open Source Initiative) who first decided that it would be a good idea to use this pattern as a sort of hacker emblem in 2003, and since then it has been displayed on several hacking-related sites, and is often seen in the forum signatures of people who believe they are hackers.

So why is this game so revered by mathematicians and hackers a like? Simple, it challenges people to come up with complex solutions to a seemingly simple problem (why not just use the two by two square in the first place?). And we are the type of people that like to be challenged, that like to find complexity in simplicity, and that love the control we can have over a system. This is a game that you can truly hack. I urge you to all at least try this game once during your lifetime.

Other GOL resources that you may find interesting:\'s_Game_of_Life


Uber0non December 05 2007 - 14:43:09
It's fun to see someone else who likes this game! I stumbled upon it two years ago or something and I still try to find new and better patterns sometimes when I'm bored B)
Folk Theoryon December 05 2007 - 15:07:58
awesome article! the one i love the most is the 'glider-gun gun' it shoots glider guns...pretty damn awesome. and of course the famous garden of eden patterns. keep it up!
spywareon December 05 2007 - 16:41:42
A very generic article, okay, but generic. You forgot to mention loads of things, rating Good.
japanesedudeon December 05 2007 - 18:09:56
Of course it's generic, I didn't want to mention too much, otherwise it would basically be a copy of the wikipedia article. No use reinventing the wheel, I just wanted to give people an idea of what this 'game' is about Smile
Qu4ntumon December 05 2007 - 19:02:53
oh nooo!!!! he used the sudo command!!! i cant stop!!! lol jk, nice article m8 *gives thumbs-up*
Folk Theoryon December 06 2007 - 03:52:49
huh? he didn't use sudo at any point...
Uber0non December 06 2007 - 07:08:24
If you have an uncompiled version of this game, is it the same as having the 'source of life'? :happy:
spywareon December 06 2007 - 12:54:34
No, it's like having the source of "Game of Life".
Uber0non December 07 2007 - 17:33:04
Damn. I was almost felling religious for a moment :angry:
SwartMumbaon December 11 2007 - 22:54:46
It's a great article which was fun read.
digitalchameleonon January 14 2008 - 19:21:51
Awesome article. Conway's game of life is the only thing I use my old palm m100 for Smile
xzebraxon November 29 2008 - 23:47:26
nice article
TheChronicScribbleron November 08 2013 - 16:00:38
sounds cool.will surely try it Smile
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