Skip to main content

Is Life a Zero-Player Game?

Think about it. If life really is some sort of a game and we are just a characters in one giant artificial intelligence play then ... Well, let's just say that we can safely recognize not very enjoyable rules we unconscionably must obey. They are simple. We must play the game. We can't quit the game. We can't win. Oh, and yes, if life really is a game then we are only just either a slaves in one master-puppeteer god-like performance or we could be just a bunch of units interacting with each other in a sort of limited free will world or a world where free will is just an illusion. Now, if life really WAS a game, what would you prefer?

Olivia Wilde & Garrett Hedlund in 'Tron: Legacy'*

It is obvious that first option is what we easily recognize as a religious world. If you ask me, this is simple marionette type of a world in which we, being a game units, have little or no influence in the game and we must obey divine rules and please the puppeteer. Within my point of view, let's just hope this is not the case. However, the second scenario is something worthwhile to give further thinking into. If life is something like one large simulation with characters playing the game independently without creator influence during the game, then we are just participating one giant Zero-Player environment that started eons ago in the point of history where evolution begun with predefined start pattern. And evolution is nothing more than just a set of rules in the complex game algorithm and the time is just an iteration flow in patterns changing from one state into another by following the rules.


Ok, let's simplify the scope and check one famous Zero-Player game that might help understanding the basic principle. The inventor is perhaps one of the great minds in the world, John Horton Conway, mathematician from Princeton University, who tried to simplify original John von Neumann idea to explain evolution with creation of a mathematical model without explosive growth over time, using just a small initial patterns with unstoppable and unpredictable outcomes with a set of rules, as simple as possible, which would drive entire system forward in time. Conway came up with brilliant two-dimensional matrix where one dot represents one living cell. Cells obey four simple rules:

1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies (death by under-population).
2. Any live cell with more than three live neighbor's dies (death by over-population).
3. Any live cell with two or three live neighbors continues to the next generation (survival).
4. Any dead cells of exactly three live neighbors will come back to life (birth).

Conway's matrix is, just like life, infinite in size, but for a demonstration purpose I found Brett Alistair Kromkamp's jQuery code** with finite matrix that I nicely embedded in the post. Just FYI, as single cell is clickable, I couldn't make it mobile or any small display friendly. To try it out you would really need to use old fashion computer screen and mouse pointer. I also created eight initial patterns that in time show different outcomes. Think of them as eight species of life and if you click on reset/start eight times and monitor each life form evolution separately, you should spot three stable forms that over couple of generations become stable, four of them ended in oscillations and one dies after 42 generations. Please fill free to play and create your own pattern and see what happens. This is of course zero-player game so your god-like intervention in this game is only to create initial organism. The Conway's game of life then operates on its own and you can only watch.

  Start/Stop   Generation counter: 0 Clear/Reset  

Conway's brilliant experiment is only a two-dimensional game with small amount of simple rules and yet it opens endless fun and endless variations in evolution of different patterns and their interactions. Now, is it possible to create, hypothetically speaking, way complicated game on a molecular level with complicated rules within the realm of chemistry? And instead of an endless matrix to use three dimensional surface of a planet? Is that what the Earth is? One giant playground with molecules in endless interactions with each other and we are today just a snapshot in the game in it's current evolution stage?

It surely fits the world surrounding us and the one in the past. In this game the world before was less complex than it is today and the world today is less complex than the one from the future. Living units in the game are evolving due to infinite interactions and if we go to the very beginning, to the first pattern of living cells, some 3.8 billion years ago, approximately 750 million years after Earth was formed, it is clear that we indeed might be living in a complex biological game. The game without players and puppeteers and only with living organisms with developed conscious minds. In order to neatly describe the current stage of the game I will just quote Stephen Hawking: "We humans are highly complex biological machines behaving in accordance with the laws of nature. Our brains create and sustain our conscious minds through an extraordinary network of interacting neurons. That consciousness creates a three-dimensional model of the outside world: a best fit model that we call reality."

Red Pill or Blue Pill?***

You might be asking now where free will fits in the game? If we are not players per se, then do we even possess such thing? Are we able, being units in the game, just by following the rules, no matter how complex they are, to choose our own course of action without constraints and fate? If the game model like this one is correct then I am pretty sure we can stop thinking about free will. There is no such thing, at least in the raw meaning of the word. Yes, we are able to control our actions and to choose certain path which gives us illusion of a free will, but even if we choose one path in favor to another, we are not really capable to calculate where this chosen path really leads to or where it ends. There are simply too much unknown variables on the way. Not to mention that we are completely incapable of knowing who or what will we stumble on the chosen path and how this new interaction will play out in the game.

But the beautiful thing in this mind experiment called "Game of Life" is even though we only have limited free will, as it seems, there is no fate as well. And even though the rules are definite and inexorable, due to the enormous size of the game level and complexity of the rules and infinite number of organisms and molecules, it is really impossible to calculate the outcome of the game or any of game's part separated either in space or in time. At least from the inside of the game. And as it appears, there is no outside of the game as well. If there was, then, like in Conway's game embedded in this post above, there could be a "reset" button somewhere. "The button" that was perhaps pressed about five times so far.****

But, like in any game, there might be glitches, lags and bugs (like fabulously portrayed in Tron movies and series*) and I definitely had that in mind when last summer Viktor and I filmed a short movie with the same name** that exploits this very scientific thought. It's our first and only movie so far so it's full of imperfection but to sum it up, it's plot tells a story about a young boy who's following a glitch in the system, presented in real life as a firefly, through numerous portals to the place where he meets a man with the final orb, the artifact that seems to be a way in for full understanding of the life itself, its origin and the rules it is built on. Entire movie is embedded above and about all the filming and production, please find within referenced link.

Image refs:,

Code ref:


© 2023 Milan's Public Journal