Sci Fi
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.

CivAliens

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.

Harmony_Soldier_Harmony_Unit_Progression_GA_flat

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.

Harmony_Naval_Fighter_Harmony_Unit_Progression_edited-1_GA_flat

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

image

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.

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: 

virus

“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.

The Empire Hearts Moms

Seattle sure knows how to welcome people back from trips (click for larger):This comic shop is right by my apartment and across from the bus stop I stand at every day – but it usually doesn’t look this lively.
Hopefully the Force reminded you to call your mom today.

Why my building has key cards


Now I just need to figure out how to make the doors say “Good morning, Ms. McCreight” instead of “Beep.” Then I’ll really be living in a sci-fi movie.

(Alternate reason why my building has key cards: To keep the undergrads out. I like my reason better.)

EDIT: I originally had pi = 0.6 because my project is currently looking at heterozygosity in humans, which is represented by pi, but I realized the inevitable nerd rage I would invoke when people would think I was too stupid to realize pi (approximately) = 3.14. So x it is.

…I have become too nerdy to make nerdy jokes, gah.

Popped my Star Wars cherry

I have a very important announcement to make.

I just watched Star Wars: A New Hope for the very first time. That’s right, ever. Previously I had only seen very small clips, though I knew the whole plot thanks to being surrounded by nerds. I also have never seen Episodes 5 and 6.

The worst part? I’ve seen the new trilogy.

Though the oddest part was that it was just sort of alright. I mean, some parts were funny, some parts were dated, and some parts were just terrible. I guess it’s different watching it without the childhood memories and attachment. Luke has effectively no reaction to seeing the horrifically charred bodies of the two people who raised him for eighteen years, but the spooky disintegration of Obi Wan leaves him screaming and upset? What the hell, Luke? You’ve known him for only a couple hours, and all he did was give you super vague advice about the Force!

Ok, I’m going to shut up now before I make you guys want to stone me even more. Will watch the other Episodes later!

Star Trek & Angels and Demons

I hadn’t seen a movie in theaters in ages, but I actually saw two today! Two different groups of friends wanted to go at different times. Hooray. The first one was Star Trek, so now all my geeky friends can finally stop bugging me to see it. I really liked it, but keep in mind I’ve never seen a second of old Star Trek episodes or movies before seeing this one. The extent of my knowledge was basically:

-Spock is supposed to be logical
-Klingons are angry and have their own language that uber-geeks learn
-The phrase “beam me up Scotty”
-The silly hand salute thing that’s hard to do
-Trekkies like to go around screaming “KHHAAAANNN” for reasons I do not understand

Now that I’ve offended every Trekkie out there… *ahem* I’m sure someone who’s expecting something in particular has their gripes with the film. I know I’m uber nitpicky when it comes to Harry Potter. But, as a Star Trek n00b, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie from an entertainment point of view. Though I have to admit, I was oddly unnerved by how sexy Zachary Quinto’s Spock was. Not quite sure I’m supposed to be having those feelings about Spock, but yum. Oh, and who else thought every time Spock got annoyed he was going to start slicing peoples heads open and stealing their powers?

Noooo, not teh kitteh! Why do you need nine lives when you can never die?!?!

I also saw Angels and Demons, which I thought was pretty good. Definitely better than the DaVinci Code, but that’s not saying much. Now, I know people like to harp on Dan Brown, but I genuinely enjoy his novels. He’s no Shakespeare, but his plots are entertaining page turners so you can stfu if you think I’m dumb for liking them. Anyway, like I said the movie was pretty good – probably helped that I read the book years ago, so I didn’t remember it well enough to be super critical. Tried not to cringe too much at all the antimatter stupidity and told myself to suspend disbelief for a bit. I really liked the idea that God sent an atheist intellectual professor (Langdon) to save all of Catholicism – how ironic.

The one thing that bugged me was that it seemed to have a big “Science and religion are compatible, and when you think they’re not, that’s when you have problems!” message. It’s not that I just disagree with this – but the very premise of the movie seemed to disagree with it. I mean, it was anti-science Catholics versus pro-science Catholics (the Illuminati), not versus atheistic scientists. Heck, the two irreligious characters are the only ones not murdering and blowing things up – they’re actually saving the day. Maybe people will get that message out of the movie instead of the one the film trying to jam down their throat.