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Conway's Game of Life for iPhone

Project Stages

  1. 1-Dimensional pattern matching on a bitboard
  2. 2-Dimensional pattern matching on a bitboard
  3. Rotating 2-D Dimensional patterns on a bitboard
  4. Searching for multiple patterns

Origins of this Project

For his Final Year Project for his B.Sc. Daniel Newman wrote a cellular automata simulator in Visual C++ 6.0. Inspired by Conway's "Game of Life," the application displayed a rectangular grid of cells which each either contained a gas particle (alive) or contained nothing (dead). A set of rules similar to Conway's Life rules were used to determine whether each cell would be alive or dead in the next frame of the animation. He then compared the patterns produced by this application to rates of flow in a gaseous system as predicted by partial differential equations and concluded that the cellular automata envisioned by John von Neumann in the 1940s could provide an alternative tool for modelling gas diffusion to traditional differential equations.

The code to this C++ program has since been lost. This iPhone app does not attempt to model gas diffusion; instead it picks up on one feature of Conway's Game of Life that Daniel Newman came across in a footnote of a Computer Science textbook and instantly decided was what could make Life into a game: technologies.


A Glider on a Life board
One of the more famous technologies in Life is the Glider. It is an arrangement of five cells that walks its way across the board until it hits an obstacle. If left forever on an otherwise empty toroidal or infinitely large board a glider will continue to walk forever.

If technologies are the what gives Life its richness and beauty then surely a session of the game's value could be measured in terms of how many technologies emerged in its lifespan. Some technologies have been observed to eventually form still life, a pattern which does not change from one frame to the next unless neighbouring live cells collide with it. Other technologies act as oscillators. Still life is an oscillator with a period of one whereas richer oscillators have higer periods. If Life was to be a game with a scoring system then oscillators with high periods would be worth more points than still lifes. Technologies which did not remain in one place and could therefore influence any cell on the board would be worth more points than ones which merely oscillated.

Most Life Java applets on the web around 2005 just allowed the user to define a starting frame one cell at a time. This meant that only the most patient player could draw technologies such as gliders and that more complicated techs such as the Gosper Glider Gun were out of the question. To make a game out of Life surely these applets should let you use a brush shaped like a Glider and give you a final score when the game ended acknowledging the patterns you had created. However, creating a scoring system that ranked known technologies based on commonnesses which had been determined by other researchers was not going to earn Daniel Newman a degree. So, instead, he buried the idea for this game in his mind and turned in a paper on gas diffusion. This iPhone app may not be what universities want to publish in journals but it is something that has been in the back of my mind for six years. Thank you for taking the time to read this document. I hope you like my imminent iPhone app too.

Addendum: this is not a toy

Will Wright, creator of the Sim City series, claimed that his applications were not games but toys. The idea for Sim City was born when Wright realised that he was having more fun designing levels than he was actually playing them. Unlike a game which can be won or lost, the Sim series of games allowed the player to strive for whatever result they chose. Traditional Life follows this paradigm in that breakthroughs have come when researchers have discovered patterns not seen before and, therefore, which could not have been set as a goal for the game. Source: Wikipedia

While I do not wish to belittle Conway's Game of Life by referring to it as a toy, I hope my variation has succeeded in providing a game that players find entertaining. If it inspires the player to take an interest in the abundance of research that has been published about Life then so much the better.