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Subject: Using the game Evolution to teach Evolution rss

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Stu West
United Kingdom
Oxford
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This is a quick summary of using the game Evolution as a teaching aid, with first year undergraduates at Oxford University, England. I have found it very useful, and recommend it.

The students are split into groups of about 4, and told: “Play the game Evolution with the people in your tutorial group. Write a summary of how well this game encapsulates evolution by natural selection. In particular, what general processes does it illustrate, and what general processes do you think it misses out or gets wrong?”. We then meet for an hour to discuss their essays.

I have found this great for getting students to think and discuss with each other. To do well, they need to really understand how natural selection can drive evolution, and quite a few fundamentals of evolutionary biology. There are lots of possible ways for discussion to go.

Things the game illustrates well
1. Adaptation. The very general principle that organisms are (become) adapted to the environments in which they live. And that environment includes other species. The utility of certain traits (cards) depends upon the environment.
2. Trade-offs. Hypothetical individuals that are brilliant at everything are called Darwinian Demons. These cannot exist in nature because resources are limited, and so must be traded off between different potential uses. You could use a card to become bigger, or increase population, but not both, illustrating the trade-off between number and size (quality) of offspring. You can only have so many traits, so have to pick and choose.
3. Evolutionary arms races. What one species does can drive selection in another species. Predators drive prey to gain traits that lets them avoid predators. This then drives predators to gain traits to get around those predator avoidance traits. For example, if prey climb to avoid predators, then predators are selected to gain climbing, in which case climbing isn’t any use anymore for prey. Such arms races can represent the red queen process – running just to stay in the same place.
4. Convergent evolution. Natural selection can drive similar things in different species. Getting around the same problem in the same way. For example, if all the herbivores become big, then we can see all the predators become big.
5. Some students thought about the three things that are required to make natural selection happen (variability, heredity, variability is associated with variable success), and then thought about how well these occur in the game. Are the random cards like mutations? Is the between round transition equivalent to heredity?
6. Some students linked to important ecological processes, e.g. density dependent population regulation, competitive exclusion, niche partitioning.

Things that are not in the game
It is just a game, and we shouldn’t expect it to perfectly capture the process of evolution by natural selection. This is especially useful, because it can be harder for the students to work out what is missing. Some useful discussion topics include:
1. Natural selection is not evolution. Discuss and clarify the difference.
2. The most important difference is that natural selection operates via gene frequency dynamics within species, whereas the game is about competition between species. This is very useful for focusing discussion about at what level and how natural selection operates (genes, individuals, groups etc).
3. Are most mutations deleterious or beneficial? Is the day to day job of natural selection to prevent degradation or drive change? Which links to evolution of sex and recombination.

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Makes good sense as there is about as much truth in the game as there is in theory.
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Mike Hunnicutt
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Mabuchi wrote:
Makes good sense as there is about as much truth in the game as there is in theory.

10 minutes! That took longer than I thought, this time.
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Jarek Szczepanik
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I also tried to use Evolution with the university and highschool students. We also talked about how often evolution produces cooperation and communication and how these relationships shape ecosystems. in addition we tried to search for keystone species in our ecosystems. The game is good for teaching both evolution and ecology.
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Paul Wise
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Quite impressive indeed
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Duke Of Lizards
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Did you have to get many copies of the game? Was this done in class, or were students able to 'check out' the game? Did you teach the rules in class? Anything you would do differently next time?

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Stu West
United Kingdom
Oxford
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I was only teaching to two groups of four this time. I have one copy I said they could borrow (and pass around - this could work with a small number of groups), or I pointed out a local games cafe where they could go and play it (http://www.thirstymeeples.co.uk). They went and played it at the cafe, with one of them even buying it after that.
I didn't teach them the rules at all, they just went and learnt it themselves in their own time. It was instead of writing an essay. I think that worked well, letting them do it all independent of my input. It really stimulated discussion between them.
I had just given their entire year (110 students) 4 lectures on Adaptation & Natural Selection.
Another colleague of mine took a group to the cafe to play it, which also worked.
Next year I will encourage them to try and be more critical. They were better at finding the things that fitted, than aspects of natural selection which were not in the game.
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Stu West
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Oxford
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What kind of communication do you mean?
Keystone species is a great idea!

Svartisen wrote:
I also tried to use Evolution with the university and highschool students. We also talked about how often evolution produces cooperation and communication and how these relationships shape ecosystems. in addition we tried to search for keystone species in our ecosystems. The game is good for teaching both evolution and ecology.
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Mr Osterman
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It sounds like a good starting point but I would worry that it can also easily turn into "evidence" of Intelligent Design. The player is making the decision to "Give" traits to something to help it survive in comparison to others as a Divine Power might have Designed the world.

That said, I just played a game with some students because it's after the AP tests and most of my seniors skipped. We had a good talk about the role of our species "evolving" to match the changing landscapes.
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Jonas Emmett
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"Unlike work, which needs some detachment and ought not to be taken too seriously, games need to be played with the utmost seriousness and dedication." - Bruno Faidutti
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MrOsterman wrote:
It sounds like a good starting point but I would worry that it can also easily turn into "evidence" of Intelligent Design. The player is making the decision to "Give" traits to something to help it survive in comparison to others as a Divine Power might have Designed the world.
Except the available traits at any one time are randomly determined—you can't design a species with the most appropriate traits, only the best of what you're holding. And if anyone watched me play, they would find very little intelligence at work.
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Rich Moore
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I use it in my Evolution for non-majors as an extra credit assignment and to give me an excuse to play boardgames with students.

We also critique the game following play...what is accurately reflected and what isn't. The evolutionary arms race is probably the best concept that is illustrated in the game. Students will point out it seems a bit like Intelligent design, but I agree, the start traits (mutations) are not chosen and natural selection is non-random, though not pre-determined.

One thing not illustrated as well is genetic drift...random loss of alleles exacerbated in small populations. Also, being able to "lose" traits like that is not so reflective of the actual process of evolution. Traits may be lost, but usually they leave their footprint on the organism (e.g. vestigial traits).
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