RICHARD ERNSBERGER JR.
You are a black ant, the commander of an ambitious colony nestled under ground in somebody's backyard. Your mission: to compete with a nearby colony of red ants for food and territory. Your ultimate goal: to conquer the red ants and expand your turf. There are plenty of dangers: marauding spiders, voracious ant lions, torrential downpours, merciless lawn mowers and crushing human feet--any one of which can leave your colony vulnerable to destruction.
Most people perceive ants as nothing more than little insects with a penchant for crashing picnics. But the folks at Maxis, a computer-game company in Orinda, Calif., see them as complex creatures whose intricate behavior patterns can be both entertaining and educational. SimAnt, newly released by Maxis, is both a survival contest and a simulation, says Will Wright, co-founder of the company and coauthor of the game (with Justin McCormick). On one level, it is simple fun: an engaging way to manage an ant colony (containing workers, soldiers and the queen, among others). There are funny sound effects (ants munching food) and wry messages: "After a wrestling match [with a spider], the fiend rips your limbs off"' If your colony is defeated, the PC writes you off as a "weak link in the food chain."
But SimAnt also contains layers of complexity based on how ants function in the real world. In that way, says Wright, SimAnt is a form of "self-directed learning." For scientific data on ant behavior, Wright and McCormick drew on the 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Ants," by Harvard University biologists Bert Holldobler and E. 0. Wilson. In playing SimAnt, the user must make strategic decisions, such as whether he wants to attack the red colony or hoard food. He must manage the cast-increase and decrease the percentage of workers and soldiers, depending on whether he wants the colony to forage for food or fight the reds.
SimAnt is the third simulated "living system" from Maxis. The company's first product, SimCity, lets the user create and manage his own city. Wright says several universities have used the game to teach urban planning. SimEarth, published last year, is a complex model of the earth's evolution. Inspired by scientist James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis-which posits that the earth is a self-regulating system-SimEarth lets players control the geosphere, atmosphere, biosphere and civilization of random planets. Users place life forms in oceans, move mountains and destroy continents.
In the future, says Wright, Maxis will continue to create games derived from an emerging field called artificial life-the blending of biology and computer science. A growing number of programmers are trying to simulate living organisms on computers, says Wright. The idea: "To create software that adapts genetically, like an ant colony might adapt genetically." Two months ago a fire swept through the hills of Oakland, Calif, destroying Wright's home and virtually every living thing in its path. Among the few survivors, noted the game designer wryly, were ants.