This week's pick is the classic Conway’s Game of Life by T-Alex Software. I like to think of it as a fractal crossed with the game Go... and that handheld game that came out in the 90s, Lights Out by Tiger Electronics. You interact with the Game of Life, not by solving puzzles or competing with an opponent, but by inputting an initial configuration, then sitting back and observing the process of evolution as each cell in a two-dimensional grid transitions, step-by-step, into a dead or alive state. OK, that may not sound as fascinating as it truly is, so allow me to explain a little further.

British mathematician John H. Conway devised this simple, zero-player, autonomous game that relies only upon a short set of rules to dictate how each cell must interact with its eight bordering neighbors. The initial pattern, the user's only input, is the seed of the system. Then with each step (or tick) in the game, the following transitions occur:

  1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if caused by under-population.
  2. Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
  3. Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overcrowding.
  4. Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

Even without the use of computers to plot the plane, beautiful and interesting patterns can emerge via adherence to that outline of rules; one of the most fascinating aspects of The Game of Life is how it produces repeating patterns and patterns that move across the plane (referred to as gliders and spaceships). But with modern-day computers, we can process these steps effortlessly and see them before us near-instantaneously! As if that wasn't mind-blowing enough, how about wrapping your brain around the resultant theory that there needn't be a designer for complex systems to evolve, only a catalyst!

If you're interested in learning more about Conway's Game of Life, you may like to continue reading this article discussing some of the implications that was posted over at

"A computer can be built inside the Life "universe"... Briefly, streams of gliders and spaceships can be used to send information just as electrical signals are used to send information in a physical computer. These streams of gliders can react in a way to perform all of the logical functions on which a modern computer is based. It would be very impractical to build a computer this way, but given a large enough Life pattern and enough time, we could run any program that runs on a computer. Several interesting special-purpose computers have been constructed as Life, including one that outputs the prime numbers.

A universal constructor can even be built. This is a pattern that can take a blueprint for some other Life pattern (or its own) and build that pattern. No one has built this yet, since it would be very large, but it has been shown to be possible. This means that Life patterns could exist that reproduce themselves. They could even modify their blueprints just as living things combine and mutate their genes. Who can say what would develop in a large enough universe of reproducing Life patterns?

cont... Computer viruses are also examples of cellular automata. Finding the cure for computer viruses could be hidden in the patterns of this simple game. Human diseases might be cured if we could better understand why cells live and die. Exploring the galaxies would be easier if machines could be invented that could build themselves. Imagine sending a probe to Mars that could build a copy of itself. Although this is theoretically possible, it hasn't been invented yet!" - Paul Callahan

Observing complex patterns emerging from very simple rules, watching virtual cells reproduce or die off — hey, it's geeky entertainment on the cheap! But as you'll quickly discover, Conway's Game of Life exhibits complexity far beyond the patterns you'll see on the screen - this didactic software gets in your head. Even within a finite space, by applying simple rules to random variables, we can explore and better understand the evolution of life within our own universe. Because of the surprising ways in which patterns can emerge and evolve, Conway's Game of Life has attracted interest over several scientific fields, from computer sciences and mathematicians to biologists and philosophers.
 Download the freeware right now from Tucows! It comes with pattern presets to get you started, or input your own mark then click Start! There are a number of ways to customize your view and switch between different rule sets. You can also store actions, copy and paste samples, and change the color palette. Have fun exploring, share it with a student, or just let it run for hours in the background while you're off running errands... find out if your colony of cells has survived, flourished, or died off completely upon your return — I came back once to find a Menger Sponge pattern had developed!