Conway's Game of Life


Welcome to the world's first zero-player game. Famous mathematician and computer scientist John von Neumann once pondered one of humanity's most curious questions: "Is it possible to colonize Mars?" As a logical man, he theorized ways humanity would have to set out on this goal. It was clear to him that, were humans to get to Mars, we would first have to colonize it with machines. These machines would need a way to reproduce, which means they would need the capacity to create things as smart or smarter than themselves. How is this possible? How can something complex grow out of something simple? This question applies far beyond the concept of traveling to Mars. What about intelligence? How could something like sentience grow out of the relatively simple laws of the natural world? Conway's Game of Life is Mathematician John Conway's exploration of that.


Conway's Game of Life is played on an infinitely-large 2D grid. Each space, aka "cell", on the grid can be in one of two states: alive or dead (boolean). Each cell has eight "neighbors" - the cells in the eight cells surrounding it.


Conway's Game of Life, set up on a simple grid filled with simple states, is governed by just three simple rules. At the end of each time step, all cells on the board are modified in accordance with the following rules:

  • Any live cell with two or three live neighbors survives (stays alive)
  • Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors is born (becomes alive)
  • All other cells stay dead or are killed


How can such a simple setup and set of rules lead to anything worthwhile? By following these three simple rules, random seeds can blossom into ecosystems. Patterns arise, states form then die, states form then stabilize. If this amount of beauty can arise from the simplicity of three laws and a boolean board, what could something relatively complex like the laws of physics create?

To see some larger-scale simulations of Conway's Game of Life, check out this video (the coolest simulations come later on):

My Game Engine

Here are a couple of things to note when running my version of Conway's Game of Life... First, the number of rows/columns can not be larger than the number of cells that would fit on the current terminal screen, or else it won’t show up as nicely. Second, everything outside of the n x n grid is treated as “dead”. To run the game, perform the following steps:

  1. Maximize your terminal window and make the font relatively small
  2. Create an n x n csv file filled with only 1s and 0s and place it in the same directory as
  3. Run and input the filename and “n” as the number of rows/columns
  4. To advance one time step, click the right arrow key
  5. To exit, just exit the terminal window or ctrl-c
I hope you enjoy my version of Conway's Game of Life :)

You can find the source code to my game engine, which uses the "curses" python library to dynamically write to your terminal, here.