While John Conway’s Game of Life (a cellular automaton) appears to be quite different from Milton Bradley’s Game of Life (a rather trite board game), there are a few prevailing similarities. For instance, both represent scenarios where there is a finite number of situations a player can occupy; both involve witnessing the overall evolution of its players; and both can be considered “zero-player” games, in the sense that Conway’s Game of Life requires no players and Milton Bradley’s Game of Life should really never have any players, especially if Klaus Teuber’s Settler’s of Catan is within easy reach. Dr. Ursula Whitcher, Department of Math, focuses less on the comparison of complex mathematical phenomenon to popular board games and more on just the mathematical phenomenon part in her active learning activity featuring John Conway’s Game of Life:
Setting: 20-minute activity implemented in a 100-level course; 6 pods with 5 students per pod
Purpose of the activity: Students explore and discuss Conway's Game of Life using the Google Easter egg, as displayed on pod computers.
Setup for the activity: Googling Conway's Game of Life produces an implementation of the cellular automaton "game." The game can be paused and restarted.
How the activity unfolded in the classroom: Groups explore different starting configurations, trying to answer three questions:
- Can you make a pattern that stays the same for several seconds?
- Can you make a pattern that oscillates between a couple of states?
- Can you make a pattern that moves across the screen?
This activity leads into a discussion of the formal rules of the "game."
After the activity: Students use the formal rules of Conway's Game of Life on homework and exam problems. Cellular automata are also a possible example for a final exam essay.
Additional comments from instructor: Other possible prompts to explore with this activity include:
- Can you make a pattern that disappears/dies out?
- Can you guess some of the rules of the game?