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The Role of Genetics in Civilization: Beyond Earth - Interview with Co-Lead Designers

The Role of Genetics in Civilization: Beyond Earth – Interview with Co-Lead Designers

It’s not often that my day job as a geneticist overlaps with my love for video games, but that’s exactly what’s happening in the new Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth. In early interviews about this sci-fi edition of the Civ series, it seemed like genetic engineering would play a large part in shaping your space colony’s future. As a genetics grad student and a Civ superfan (I’m not sure if I should feel guilty or proud when Steam tells me the number of hours I’ve played), I was itching for more information. I was lucky enough to interview Co-Lead Designers Will Miller and David McDonough about what role genetics will be playing in Beyond Earth.

Q: Civilization: Beyond Earth has been called the “spiritual successor” to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. In Alpha Centauri, one of the first techs you can research is Biogenetics, which enables you to make the Human Genome Project. Co-lead designer David McDonough mentioned, “When you start the game, you’re not really that far from where we are today.” What real life biological research inspired some of the genetic techs we will see early in the game?

A: There’s more than one piece of biological research that’s been an inspiration to us, going all the way back to the cloning of Dolly the sheep. But growing human organs in pigs and other transgenetic medicine and biocompatibility developments have been particularly interesting to us. The recent developments in custom-designed viruses as weapons for medical sciences – is incredibly fascinating to us. For example, the genetically engineered measles that selectively kill cancer cells as is the idea of taking something that is bad for us and turning it into something that has a positive result. Selectively infecting mosquitos with a disease that prevents them from developing the saliva necessary to transmit dengue fever is another example of research we find fascinating. We think the most interesting research has been channeling forces that are at best neutral (and mostly harmful) and turning them into things that are helpful to us.

Q: Alpha Centauri was released in 1999, and the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. While still incredibly useful to scientists, we consider the HGP old news. Are there any technologies in Beyond Earth that are currently science fiction, but you believe may become reality in the next decade?

A: The tech that we most hope gets adopted in the next decade is the thorium reactor, which is a building that you unlock through the Engineering technology. Dave McDonough in particular will talk your ear off about its many upsides and how it has potential to revolutionize our power. So please don’t ask him about thorium reactors in the next decade or we won’t have time to finish this interview.

Q: Were there any particular books, movies, or TV shows that shaped how you treat genetics in the game?

A: Slant by Greg Bear is a great source, taking the theme of genetic manipulation as form of fashion, and science as a plaything as our vanity. Older and darker but also important is the graphic novel series Transmetropolitan, which has some absolutely fascinating ideas in it, not only about biology but about the future more generally.

Q: One of the most memorable characters from Alpha Centauri is the leader of University of Planet. Can we expect to see another scientist leading a Faction in Beyond Earth?

A: Yes! Daoming Sochua is the leader of the Pan-Asian Cooperative. She’s a certifiable genius with a quad Ph.D. in nanoelectronics, nuclear physics, bubble physics, and electrical engineering. That last degree was a lagniappe from working on the other three. In addition to her formidable research skills, she’s also a talented administrator. While defending her theses, her committee became acutely aware of their impending obsolescence.be_daoming_sochua1

Concept art for Daoming Sochua Source: GameCrate

Q: Could you tell me more about the new “Gene Vault” wonder? Are there other genetics-themed buildings or wonders available to players?

A: There are quite a few Wonders based around genetics, and Gene Vault is the earliest of these, as well as the Stonehenge of the new planets. The Gene Vault is a Svalbard for the new world – a massive, secure repository of the genetic library the settlers bring with them to their new planet. Think about how incredibly important this library would be for space colonists! The Gene Vault is also important because it represents a strong link back to the aspirations and hopes of Old Earth.

Q: One major feature of Beyond Earth is the three affinities: Harmony, Purity, and Supremacy. Harmony specializes in embracing the alien planet, and will “allow the planet to change them right down to their very own DNA.” Will other affinities utilize genetic manipulation, or will this be specific to Harmony?

A: All three affinities would have their own take on genetic manipulation. A Purity civ, for example, would probably find genetic manipulation perfect for eliminating genetic disorders like Huntington’s or other disorders with a strong hereditable component. A Supremacy civ would see it as another tool in the proverbial toolbox of adaptive technologies, although they’d be more likely to point out that it’s a lot easier to update firmware than nucleotides. But in the end they see everything as code that can be reprogrammed.

Q: Harmony also allows you to get “alien creatures on your team and breed new units based on their genes.” Can you tell me more about how this breeding system will work?

A: Right now these are units that are unlocked by researching Harmony-affiliated techs. The notion of breeding is reflected in the fact that these units are not identical to those you find wandering out in the world.

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Wolf beetles and a siege worm

Q: What is Harmony’s relationship with the alien life like? Is it a mindless swarm doing the bidding of their leaders like the Zerg, a symbiotic beneficial relationship like Avatar, or something completely different?

A: Harmony can have any relationship towards the planet’s native life, and in fact, part of the Harmony approach usually means clearing out nearby alien nests as part of your own city development. Preserving humanity is usually an overriding priority over preserving the planet! A Harmony civ will be trying to change humanity to be a better biological match to the world, but that doesn’t mean rejecting technology or ignoring existential threats – the world will certainly need to be changed a bit to accommodate the Harmony civ. They’re just less interested in radically changing the world than Purity, or rejecting the environment entirely like Supremacy.

It’s also not true that a Harmony civ is inherently more peaceful than any other civ. An aggressive Harmony civ is a tidal wave of mandibles and chitin directed consciously at its enemies.

Q: In Firaxis’s other incredibly popular game X-COM: Enemy Within, you have the ability to give your soldiers various abilities through genetic engineering. Will this be an option in Beyond Earth’s new Unit Upgrade system?

A: Yes! In fact, certain upgrades are tied specifically to your Affinity, and require a certain devotion to your affinity in order to unlock. This helps differentiate the Affinities and their approach to combat.

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Source: 2K Games

Q: McDonough has mentioned that most of the game’s technology will be realistic/plausible, but by the end you’ll see “pretty fun wild crazy things, very fictitious stuff.” Can you hint at any crazy genetic technologies you may unlock? Should I be looking forward to an “X-Gene” that enables my soldiers to shoot laser beams from their eyes or read minds?

A: Artificial Evolution is probably the most out-there genetics tech, and it’s got some impressive leaf techs underneath it (aggressive Harmony players, this is one tech to aim for). It won’t do anything for your soldiers per se, but keep in mind that your soldiers are only one part of your arsenal.

Q: Genetics is already a divisive topic in our world, with many differing opinions on the ethics of GMOs, personalized genomics and medicine, and “designer babies.” Will this division play out in Beyond Earth? For example, am I going to get a diplomatic penalty with Purity aligned Factions if I decide to make an army of mutant super soldiers?

A: Yes, but it will be predominately because you as a Harmony civ (which I’m assuming here) will have a wildly different vision for the planet than the Purity civ. You will want people to live more comfortably on the planet by changing people, and the other civ will feel the planet needs to be turned into a new Earth. However, you can still go heavily into genetic techs and focus on Purity as your affinity, and so you may have more in common with that other Purity civ than you might expect.

Q: Religion in Alpha Centauri was limited to a few Factions. But in Beyond Earth it seems that everyone will have access to religion, suggesting it will be more customizable like in Civ 5. Will we have the ability to make a religion centered around genetic engineering or opposed to it?

A: We’re not looking at implementing specific religious themes or proscriptions. Certainly you can think of the Affinities as being sort of larger meta-philosophies in terms of how they perceive the best path for humanity going forward, and as you increase in your devotion to an Affinity you’re making a conscious rejection of the other two. Whether or not that rises to the level of “thou shalt not” for your people is up to the player.

Q: In Alpha Centauri, the player was able to engage in genetic warfare that would reduce the population of a city by half and greatly damage military units in the city. Will genetics or biological warfare play a role in combat or as part of the new espionage system?

A: Biological warfare is something that’s hard to feel good about, as a player. We were trying for a more optimistic tone with Beyond Earth, and not browbeat players for the choices they make in the course of the game. Designer plagues don’t really fit the tone we’re trying to achieve.

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Source: 2K Games

Q: Sci-fi books and video games frequently have a dystopian view of genetics that can disappoint researchers who see a lot of good coming out of their field. What sort of philosophy did you take when addressing the role of genetics in Beyond Earth? Are you going to leave the morality up to the player? For example, will a Harmony aligned Faction be able to make choices that allow them to play as a utopian society that’s free of disease, a dystopian society with genetic classes like Gattaca, or some ethical gray area in between?

A: The approach to the technologies in the game was driven by a larger approach we take in design which is: players should feel like the decisions they’ve made were positive ones. We don’t want players to make a choice and then immediately regret it because of something the game says. Now, consequences as a result of those decisions – that’s perfectly appropriate! So to that end, we’ll let players decide what the moral valence of their choices should be.

Q: How do you think your job as game developers affects public perception of science? For example, Carl Sagan’s Contact greatly inspired me to fall in love with science and become a scientist, and clearly had an impact on Beyond Earth since it is effectively one of the victory conditions. Do you see Beyond Earth as playing a similar role in inspiring others to appreciate science?

A: We’re not setting out to give a science lesson in Beyond Earth, although we do like to think we’ve paid attention to actual science and our speculative courses are at least plausible. If someone experiences something in the game and then says: “Gee, I wish I knew more about these ‘thorium reactors,’” and they go out and educate themselves, then we’re incredibly happy and proud. Sid always says that people like to learn, and there are plenty of opportunities to dig into the science behind the game here. We also do a lot of research after the game gets made, so we’ll keep reading up on science long after the game ships.

Why Doesn’t Anyone on the Enterprise Wear Gloves? and other Star Trek conundrums

I’m currently watching Star Trek: The Next Generation for the first time (just started season 6). I know, I know – how did a nerd like me miss the boat? Part of it was the fact that I was born the same year the series started, so you’ll have to excuse my past baby self for not tuning in. I’m also the only person in my family who likes sci-fi, so I wasn’t exposed to it there. But frankly, I avoided Star Trek for a long time because I thought it was the world of asocial uber-nerds who liked to blow up stuff with phasers and fabricate technobabble to pretend to be scientific.

Boy, was I wrong. First of all, the science on the show is fantastic overall. There are so many moments where I find myself thinking as a biologist, “Hey, yeah, that’s completely plausible!” You can imagine my glee when it was revealed that a Klingon spy was managing to sneak messages past the transporter’s filters by encoding them as amino acid sequences.

I also can’t stop thinking how damn progressive the show is, especially when I remember it was made over two decades ago. I had no idea that an integral part of every episode is discussing ethics, humanism, and social justice. Or that half the scenes would be in meetings, trials, or diplomacy. To me, one of the most striking example of the show’s progressive values is the relationship between Will Riker and Deanna Troi. I swear they have the most supportive, healthy fuckbuddy relationship that I’ve ever seen on television.

But of course, there are some things in the show that bug me. I think this is inevitable when dealing with speculative sci-fi, since there are always some consequences of technology that writers don’t immediately thing about. Thankfully nitpicking these conundrums seems to be an essential part of being a Star Trek fan, so I have to get these off my chest:

  • Why doesn’t anyone on the Enterprise wear gloves? If this has a simple explanation like “the ship generates an invisible glove force field when required,” please tell me. Because right now, every time Dr. Crusher touches a patient with some horrible alien disease, or Geordi handles some hazardous substance in the cargo bay, or someone touches a piece of evidence with bare hands, the scientist in me dies a little.
  • Why does everyone conveniently ignore the curative power of the transporter? When Dr. Pulaski is rapidly aged by an antibody that alters her DNA, the crew uses her old genome sequence as a filter in the transporter to transport her back in her previous state. No one mentions that they’ve come up with a cure to all cancer, but perhaps that’s because by the 24th century, cancer has already been cured in a different way. But they’ve also cured aging – just use an old transporter scan and you’ll keep being loaded as your 25 year old self.
  • How is Lt. Broccoli – sorry, Barclay – able to see and grab creatures in the energy stream during transport? If every molecule in your body is being turned into energy…how is sight or movement possible?
  • Why doesn’t anyone on the Enterprise seem to have any sense of urgency? I swear it took a couple of seasons to see anyone break into a light jog, let alone a run. I don’t know how many scenes I’ve watched where Worf and his security team casually walk to part of a ship to apprehend a dangerous alien/crew member/what have you. You think they’d be liberally using the transporter. You think you’re going to get away? BAM, Worf just teleported right in front of you! Or better yet, we teleported you to a holding cell.
  • When Geordi and Ensign Ro are believed to be dead but they’re actually on the Enterprise out of phase, at the end of the episode Geordi is ravenous because they haven’t eaten in two days. So we know even though they’re out of phase, they’re still having normal bodily functions. …So where did they poop during these two days? I know it’s not the most important question in the Star Trek universe, but knowing there’s phased poop hidden on the Enterprise fills me with endless mirth.
  • But the most baffling thing of all…why the hell does Synthehol exist? Why would you keep the awful taste of alcohol and get rid of the main point of drinking it, the intoxicating effects? If there’s anything in Star Trek that makes it hard for me to suspend disbelief, it’s this.

Don’t mind me, just walking my Dalek

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Seen on Capitol Hill Saturday night. My shoddy night time phone photography doesn’t do it justice – this looked like something off the set. It was enhanced by a number of onlookers yelling “EXTERMINATE!” for extra ambiance.

I love how nerdy this city is.

Pokébiology 101: "Evolution" and the enigma of Eevee

Pokébiology 101: “Evolution” and the enigma of Eevee

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(Click here for the introductory post to Pokébiology 101)

You know I had to start my Pokébiology 101 series with the most famously scientifically inaccurate part of Pokémon: evolution.

In the Pokémon world, “evolution” means something different from what you might have learned in your biology classes. …Well, what you should have learned in your biology classes, assuming the religious right failed to push their agenda into your science classroom. Pokémon evolution is when a Pokémon transforms into a different looking creature once some criterion is met. Most often this means reaching a certain level (levels increase as you gain experience, experience comes from participating in battles). Some Pokémon evolve under weirder circumstances like being exposed to a particular item, being traded to another player, reaching a certain level of happiness, and so on.

For example, a Bulbasaur evolves into an Ivysaur at level 16, and an Ivysaur evolves into a Venusaur at level 32.

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This is not evolution. This is metamorphosis.

What’s the difference? Why are Pokémon actually metamorphosing, and not evolving? They both imply some sort of change is taking place, which is why the terms are so easily confused. But there’s a major difference in when and where that change happens:

  • Metamorphosis is the change in body structure of an individual that happens conspicuously and abruptly during their lifetime. The most common real world example is a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. This is exactly what happens in the Pokémon world. Well, instead of forming a cocoon, Pokémon flash a bright light and make cheery beeping noises…but I’m going to chalk that up to the games being from the point of view of a ten year old with an overactive imagination. Wee, shiny!
  • Evolution is the change in heritable characteristics of a population over successive generations. A characteristic is heritable if it is genetic, and thus will get passed on from parent to offspring, and from that offspring to its offspring, and so on. The key here is that this change happens over many generations and affects the whole population.

What would be a hypothetical example of actual evolution in the Pokémon world? Let’s say we’ve stumbled upon a population of Venusaurs in some jungle untouched by Pokémon trainers. Most  Venusaurs have pink flowers, but a rare individual has a gold flower because of a mutation. In case you’re wondering, this alternative color scheme exists in-game and is known as a “shiny,” and shiny Pokémon are incredibly rare. Like, “I’ve probably played 1000 cumulative hours of Pokémon games and I only found one shiny Sentret a decade ago” rare.

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Now, let’s say that shiny Venusaur is very successful in producing a lot of baby Bulbasaurs for whatever reason. Maybe gold flowers attract more prey, so shiny Venusaur is well fed and can have more babies (directional selection). Maybe other Venusaurs find the rare gold flower extra sexy, so shiny Venusaur has more mates and thus more babies (sexual selection). Maybe it’s all due to random chance and shiny Venusaur just gets lucky (genetic drift). When that generation of Bulbasaurs grows up, the new generation of Venusaurs might look something like this:

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If we’re still around to observe this population many generations later, it may look like this:

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The shiny trait has now become “fixed” in the population – that is, every individual now has the gold flower. Now the population of Venusaurs looks different than it used to – and that is evolution! If this population is isolated from other Venusaurs and continues to evolve novel traits, one day this population might be so different that it can’t even mate with other Venusaurs anymore. And that, folks, is when you have a new species.

But back to metamorphosis. The common caterpillar example is linear: a caterpillar makes a cocoon and becomes a butterfly. But not all Pokémon have a set fate. I give you the most enigmatic example, Eevee.

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Eevee is special in the world of Pokémon because it has the largest number of ways it can evolve depending on your actions. Want a Flareon? Give Eevee a Fire Stone. Espeon? Make Eevee very happy and level up during the morning or day. Leafeon? Level up while near a mossy rock.

It seems like this couldn’t possibly exist within the confines of our natural world, right? How does an Eevee have the ability to metamorphose into such different creatures just from what its exposed to in the environment? How can a Vaporeon, Jolteon, Flareon, Espeon, Umbreon, Glaceon, and Leafeon all have the same genome as their starting Eevee, but such different traits?

Not to erode Eevee’s specialness, but this happens right here on Earth.

This is known as polyphenism: when multiple discrete phenotypes (a set of observable characteristics) can come from the same genetic background because of differences in the environment. The most common example is different castes in bees. You may know that within a hive, one female gets to be the queen bee, and the other females are worker bees. A queen bee is made by feeding a larvae what’s known as “royal jelly,” which contains chemicals that alter the larvae’s development. If that larvae has a twin sister that didn’t get a special meal, sis will grow up to be a worker. They’re genetically identical, but very different thanks to their environment.

The only thing distinguishing bees from Eevees are the number of choices in development.

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In which I speculate on what would happen if you gave a bee a Fire Stone or Macho Brace.

It will forever irritate me that the game designers chose the term “evolution” instead of a totally accurate, also cool-sounding alternative word. My best guess is that “Bulbasaur is metamorphosing” took up too many pixels, so “evolving” won out. Sadly, this kind of sloppy terminology can cause a lot of misconceptions about what evolution really means. But hopefully now that you’ve learned some Pokébiology, you’re less confused.

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So confused.

I never hate my past self more than when…

…I’m trying to decipher mysterious comments I left in an old piece of code. Comments that made perfect sense a couple of months ago and that were painstakingly written so they would still be clear in the future, which still despite all that end up being completely nonsensical.

2014 is going to be a great year for video games

It seems like every week I hear an announcement for yet another amazing video game that’s going to be released this year. I thought 2013 was good with the Civ5: Brave New World expansion, the X-COM: Enemy Within expansion, Pokemon X&Y, and Fire Emblem Awakening…but it’s going to get even better:

  • Final Fantasy X HD Remaster: Okay, I know, this technically isn’t a new game. I played this back in high school, and I’m currently playing through it with Sean (who has played pretty much every Final Fantasy but this one). Man, do the updated graphics look amazing. The game always had beautiful worlds and fantastic looking monsters, but now it’s absolutely gorgeous. So gorgeous that we still haven’t disabled the five minute long aeon summon intros. I technically never finished FFX – like most RPGs, I got to the final dungeon, took a break, and then couldn’t figure out where I was or what I was doing and gave up. But this time I’m committed to seeing the ending! But even though I know the plot, it’s still a lot of fun watching Sean’s reactions as we play. Watching him go through the rite of passage of stupendously failing at Blitzball was pretty satisfying (sorry, Sean).
  • Peggle 2: I still don’t quite understand why this game is so addictive, but it is.
  • Tropico 5: My first Tropico game was actually Tropico 4, so I’m a newcomer to the series. But I instantly fell in love with planning out my cities and what industries would support my island, and figuring out how I can financially support free health care, education, and lodging. Of course I make my island a socialist utopia! I’m OCD enough that planning out the most efficient layout for my roads is enough to entertain me, but I’m looking forward to the new colonial eras in this game and the expanded building options.
  • Mario Kart 8: I like to play a lot of different video games, but if there’s one game I can say I’m actually extremely good at, it’s Mario Kart. It’s to the point where no one will play me because I’m generally so far ahead of the pack that even multiple blue shells won’t stop me (especially now that I’ve learned how to dodge blue shells on certain levels – yes, it’s possible). I’m super excited for the updated graphics and tracks, but I’m mostly excited that people will play with me for a little bit before I’ve committed all the tracks to muscle memory.
  • The Sims 4: A couple of weeks ago I was wondering if The Sims was due for a new game, since The Sims 3 came out during my senior year of high school, which is officially forever ago. It was a good feeling to go online and check, only to see that it was coming out this September. Time to recreate characters from Game of Thrones and see who marries who!
  • Civilization: Beyond Earth: I was positively euphoric for the whole day when I read about this release. I love the Civilization games – my cumulative number of play hours is definitely in the thousands, not the hundreds. Sean is as much as a fan as I am, and we spend a lot of time conquering the world together in team multiplayer games. For years now he’s been telling me I should play the old Alpha Centauri game because it’s such a classic, but I was holding out. I insisted Sid Meier would come out with a new Alpha Centauri sometime soon. They rebooted X-COM to incredible success, Civ5 was no longer having anymore expansions, they could easily adapt the Civ5 engine to this game, and Steam’s DLC system would rake in a lot of money from hardcore strategy gamers like us who want every expansion. I’ve never been so happy to be right. I can’t wait to explore the crazy alien terrain they come up with, genetically modify creatures and my own people, build giant robot armies…how could you not be excited for a sci-fi Civ game?!
  • Super Smash Brothers for Wii U: I mean, it’s the new SSB. I don’t have to say anything more.
  • Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire: A gen 3 remake using the new beautiful graphics on the 3DS? Take all my money, Pokemon.

Are there any games you all are looking forward to?

First US case of deadly MERS-CoV arrives in…my hometown in Indiana

My hometown of Munster, Indiana isn’t exactly the most exciting place in the world. As high schoolers we referred to it as Funster, precisely because it wasn’t. There don’t tend to be a lot of news stories coming out of that suburban sprawl, so I was a little surprised when I saw in the news that the first US case of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus has appeared in Munster, of all places: 

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“The infected patient, a health care worker, flew April 24 from Saudi Arabia to London and then to Chicago.

The person rode a bus from Chicago to Indiana, health officials said.

On Tuesday, the patient experienced shortness of breath, coughing and fever. The person went to the Emergency Department at Community Hospital Wednesday and was admitted that day.

Because of the patient’s symptoms and recent travel, doctors tested for MERS-CoV. MERS-CoV is a viral respiratory illness which was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012.”

It’s a little bizarre reading this, especially since I spent a ton of time in Community Hospital over the last year because of my mom’s cancer treatment. I think I’ve also ridden the same bus from the airport in Chicago to Munster.

What’s especially eerie is that while I was most recently visiting my dad, we watched the movie Contagion, which is about a pandemic of an unknown deadly virus spreading in the US. Whenever we watch sciencey movies, my dad always asks me, “Okay, tell me if this could really happen.” Most of the time I’m rolling my eyes at scientists harvesting unobtanium or sequencing genomes  instantaneously in our current era. But this whole movie I was going “Nope, THIS COULD ACTUALLY HAPPEN.”

Hopefully it’ll turn out to be nothing. Though if my hometown turns out to be ground zero for the zombie apocalypse, at least something interesting will have finally happened there.

Butts Wearing Glasses

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What? I warned you!

PAX prime approaches!

One of my favorite events of the year is next weekend – the Penny Arcade Expo. It’s a blast every year, but it’s pretty much impossible for a nerd like me to not love it. I love being able to demo upcoming games, especially the indie games that I’ve never heard of but end up loving. My favorite part is all the rooms where you can basically rent and play any video game or board game you can think of, including old and obscure ones. Not to mention the room full of free arcade and pinball games. And the cosplaying. And the tournaments. And and and

Okay, I’m kind of excited.

This year PAX is 4 days instead of 3, so I may actually attend more than one panel thanks to the extra time. I see that there’s an interesting looking one on Videogames in Medicine run by a UW professor, so I may have to check that out. There are a TON of panels on gender, sexuality, diversity, not being an asshole on the internet…but honestly I’m pretty burnt out on those topics, so I doubt I’ll go. But I’m glad they still exist for anyone else who is interested. Even though the people who need to hear it the most probably aren’t the ones who go…

And of course I’m excited about the tournaments too, which are really just an excuse to play more games with random people. But the competitive aspect makes it extra fun. I may try the 7 Wonders board game tournament, but expect to get my ass kicked. I’ll definitely try the Mario Kart Wii tournament, which is one of the few games I actually feel confident in.

I would say I’m excited to be able to rent my favorite old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game…but an arcade right by my house just got the arcade version! So much for stockpiling all of those extra quarters for laundry.

Is anyone else going to PAX? What are you looking forward to most?

Alien vs. Wizards, directed by my subconscious

I feel lucky that I frequently have very vivid, detailed dreams, sometimes to the point that I can lucid dream. The other night I had a particularly amazing one:

I was trying to survive an alien invasion, darting from place to place to find a safe spot to hunker down. During that process, I was somehow able to arm myself. In my left hand I wielded a plasma pistol from X-Com, and in the right I had a Harry Potter wand. As I shot aliens with my left, I cast spells with my right. And yes, I mean Dream Jen was actually casting legitimate Harry Potter spells. Most of the time I was screaming Protego to create a barrier to reflect incoming laser beams, and when I had a chance to go on the offense I used Incendio to set the aliens on fire. Mostly because Dream Jen couldn’t remember any other spells (in retrospect, it’s amazing I remembered any in a freaking dream). When I shouted to Dream Boyfriend (who was also shooting plasma at aliens) to help me remember other spell names, he reminded me he wasn’t a Harry Potter fanatic like me and how the hell should he know any names. When things started getting hairy, I Avada Kedavra’d as many aliens as I could, while explaining that in this case using the worst Unforgivable Curse was morally justifiable because COME ON ALIEN INVASION.

I then tweeted this dream. Someone chimed in that my brain was pitching an idea for a film. I dubbed it Alien vs. Wizards and declared it should be made.

Twitter delivered. My dream had been retroactively fulfilled: apparently the BBC already has a TV series called Wizards vs. Aliens.

Sometimes the world is a wonderful place. A wonderful place where we wonder what would happen if wizards had to fight off alien invasions.

I’ve figured out why the Vatican hoards its wealth!

St. Peter’s Basilica is not actually named that because of its architecture, but for the Basilisk living beneath it! Lore tells of Basilisks converting various substances into gold, which explains the Vatican’s enormous wealth!! It also explains why they’re so reluctant to give the wealth away, because the evil Basilisk will turn the Pope into stone as revenge!!!! Quick, we need to find a wizard and a goblin forged blade!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wait. I think I’m crossing my mythologies. Catholics don’t believe in silly things like Basilisks or goblins. They believe in crackers that magically turn into flesh and people rising from the dead. My bad, it’s all so confusing. I blame the NyQuil.

Welcome to Pokébiology 101

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Hello there! Welcome to the world of Pokémon! My name is Jen! People call me the Pokémon Grad Student!

…Okay, I don’t think anyone has actually called me the Pokémon Grad Student. But I’m a PhD candidate studying evolution and genomics who has been playing Pokémon since its release in 1998. My friend showed me his Red version, and soon after I owned my first video game – Pokémon Blue. I’ve been hooked since then.

As I progressed through my training as a biologist, I started to look at the Pokémon world in a new light. At first, it was irritation. Everything seemed wrong. They confused metamorphosis for evolution. Breeding didn’t make any sense – different Pokémon species could interbreed, but the offspring were always the same species as mom. Gender ratios didn’t reflect biological mechanisms, but rather a game designer’s attempt to keep certain Pokémon rare. Why, it was if they were trying to design a fun game with no regard to biological accuracy

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darwin heart piplup by claudetc

But as I learned more biology, I started to realize nature isn’t as simple as it seems. There are all sorts of strange biological phenomena that result in counter-intuitive mechanisms, traits, and organisms. Nature is really, really weird. So I started viewing the Pokémon world as a puzzle. If I were Professor Oak, what experiments would I be doing? Are there any natural processes in the real world that could explain Pokémon biology?

Bulbasaur Anatomical Study by JoshuaDunlop

Some of you must be thinking, “Jen, it’s just a game. It’s not supposed to make sense. Chill.” I know, I know. I don’t expect all games to be 100% scientifically accurate at the expense of fun. But I like daydreaming about how the biology of Pokémon could “work.” It’s as if I’ve discovered a whole planet of alien life to study, and what biologist wouldn’t want that?

But more importantly, I see the Pokémon world as a great way to teach people about actual biology. And I’m hardly the first person to think this – the creator of Pokémon originally conceived of the game as a way to share his childhood hobby of collecting insects with the children of a modern, urbanized Japan. But I’ll be discussing what I know best: evolution and genomics. How do Pokémon species differ from species here on Earth? What does genomic imprinting have to do with breeding? Can an organism like Eevee actually exist? I’ll be exploring these topics in future PokéBiology 101 posts.

Now, there are some things in the Pokémon Universe that are above my pay grade. I’m not even going to attempt to explain how a tiny mouse generates thunderstorms or how some Pokémon have psychic abilities. I have no clue how a Pokéball can transform Pokémon into pure energy and back again (maybe a bored Physics grad student can hazard a guess). And there’s certainly no explanation for how Onix, a ground/rock type, suddenly becomes vulnerable to electric attacks because a sprinkler system came on (yes, I am still bitter about that episode).

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 I have no idea how this works.

For all of those things, I’m willing to suspend disbelief. But when it comes to the biology of the Pokémon world, I’ve found it’s not necessary to invoke “magic!” as an explanation. Because oddly enough, that bizarre biology is already happening here on earth.

Welcome to PokéBiology 101!

Next in series: “Evolution” and the enigma of Eevee