Niche: a population genetics video game

Play as a group of animals and pass on the best genes for survival in a hostile world...
16 October 2020

Interview with 

Philomena Schwab, Stray Fawn Studios


A screenshot from the video game Niche: A Genetic Survival Game.


In the final part of the programme, we’re talking about population genetics: the study of genes not in a single living thing, but in a group of living things. There are lots of factors influencing the frequencies of genes in populations, including whether the genes are dominant or recessive, whether they get helped or hindered by evolution, or in many cases, whether strange things happen thanks to random chance. Studying this usually requires a lot of quite dry maths, so I’ve found a better alternative. I’ve been trying out a new video game - and speaking to that game’s creator...

Philomena - Hi everybody, I'm Philomena Schwab, I'm a game designer from Switzerland; and me and my team made a game that is called Niche: a Genetics Survival Game, which is a simulation game about population genetics. You are in charge of a population of animals - kind of like mammal-fox-like, but they can also have other animals' traits - and you're trying to keep them alive against all kinds of different odds, such as temperature changes or predators.

Phil - Okay, let's start this up. I'm going to hit play...

Philomena - So now we're going into story mode, so you will be playing as the little guy Adam who is a baby animal. While he and his sister are digging around looking for food, suddenly there's a big shadow on the ground, and a bird of prey swoops down and grabs Adam and carries him off into the distance. Adam wakes up and he's like, "oh my God, where am I?" And Adam is fending off and fighting back and scratches the bird of prey, so the bird of prey lets him go and he falls down. Luckily he survives the fall, but he's now in an environment that he has never seen before, far away from his family, and he has no idea what is going to happen next. And that's you!

Phil - So I'm this almost tiger-like little model sitting in this hexagonal grid.

Philomena - And the game now tells you you have to go and collect some food, so you go next to that berry bush and then you just hit the collect button. Depending on your ability to actually collect food you get a different amount: so you could have an animal that is absolutely horrible because it doesn't really have any fingers, or you can have animals with very nimble fingers that are very good at plucking out all these berries from the bush.

Phil - Am I doing okay?

Philomena - You're doing okay!

Phil - Okay, and now I can leave my first island.

Philomena - Yes. So here on the second island, you arrive and you smell the presence of another member of your species.

Phil - Oh, and I can see... because my hearing is so good, I've got these big ears, I can see another animal across this island.

Philomena - Exactly. And you can offer her five food that you have collected previously to come join your group.

Phil - Now I can control Adam and Eve...

Philomena - And you could even go ahead and try to control a third animal if you decide to go ahead and get Eve pregnant.

Phil - I can do that?

Philomena - You can do that! You're sitting next to Adam now, and you can see the little love icon...

Phil - Oh my God, I'm going to do it. I'm going to hit 'mate'.

Philomena - Do it! So now you're pregnant. You can see all the little hearts bubbling around. It's very child-friendly.

Phil - I took four days to get across the last Island and I just got pregnant in the morning. I'm amazing.

Philomena - And when you end the day...

Phil - I'll end the day.

Philomena - And then you get your first offspring!

Phil - Wow! And the next day, there's my little baby!

Philomena - You can see that when you select the baby...

Phil - I can go to a skill menu in the bottom left, and it's giving me a bunch of different skills: how well I can walk, how well I can swim, how well I can fly, collect resources, how strong I am... oh my God, how well I can crack things? There's a lot of different skills.

Philomena - There's more than the ones you're currently seeing. There's so much you can get good at in this game. There's even how fertile you are in the game.

Phil - Goodness!

Philomena - Yeah, but it always depends on the genes. You can have a long term problem where you have very good genes, but you grow infertile over time because you're not paying attention to it, or you're growing blind.

Phil - If I click the menu below skills I can go to my 'genes' menu.

Philomena - You actually have a set of genes for each slot. There is an ear slot, there is a horn slot, there's an eye slot, and a head slot, and so on. The gene that is on top is the dominant gene, and if the gene below is dark then it's the recessive gene. Each of those genes that you have influences the skill set you have.

Phil - Take me to somewhere where I've got to use these genes and I'll be challenged.

Philomena - Oh, you want to be challenged right ahead?

Phil - Yeah, I've got the hang of this, I'm ready for this.

Philomena - Since you're in story mode I don't think you will have much of a problem surviving on the first two islands or so. If you want to have a super hardcore experience, you can go into sandbox mode and start with the most difficult island.

Phil - Let's do it so that I can see where this game goes.

Philomena - Okay. Either killer islands - but those are very hard - or hard islands.

Phil - Let's do a hard island. Which do you recommend?

Philomena - What would I... do you want to get stung by lots of insects?

Phil - Yeah that sounds great, let's do that.

Philomena - Do you want to eaten by monkeys?

Phil - Sting me with insects.

Philomena - Sleepy reeds. Sleepy reeds is your selected island.

Phil - What have I got myself into? Okay, I've got this very big island with a lot of different hex areas that I can move to, and there's a lot of different types of terrain, and it looks like quite a dark swamp or jungle. And I've got two little animals, but they look really different! I didn't realise animals could look this different in the game. One's got a duck bill and is bright green, the other has got antlers and is brown and huge; and honestly it looks like if these two tried to mate, it would end really badly. Is that going to still work then, and will they mix their genes to create something new?

Philomena - It's fine. And your two animals: the one with the duck bill actually has a poison body. That is inspired by a poison frog. Predators that want to eat you will be very disgusted, because you are poisonous.

Phil - Now as I go through this world, can you just describe to me how you've dealt with not just the genes of each animal, but how the genes of animals in a group interact with each other? What sort of things are you modelling here?

Philomena - Basically the idea with the game was to model the five pillars of population genetics. There's a lot of natural selection that is basically trying to kill you in various occasions; you mostly try to avoid this by sexual selection. Sexual selection in nature is basically animals choosing who they're mating with. Often in many species it's females, so if you have ever seen a video of those little cute birds dancing around and the female looking at them, and thinking, "hmm, which one should I be picking", that is sexual selection,

Phil - And in the game how does that work?

Philomena - In the game that is you!

Phil - That's me? I'm sexual selection?

Philomena - You are sexual selection. You can basically decide who is interested in whom based on what criteria, since you have the broader overview of your species and where you want to take it.

Phil - So my female has a dominant gene for black eyes and a recessive gene for blue eyes. My male has a dominant gene for black eyes and a recessive gene for green eyes. If I mated them - which I actually have - could I control, of each parent's two genes, which one went down into the offspring? Or is it random like in real life?

Philomena - That is random.

Phil - Interesting. Have I got the baby yet?

Philomena - You have to end the day, then you get the baby.

Phil - Ok, let's end the day, let's see what the baby has...

Philomena - Black eyes.

Phil - You could have predicted that because that's a dominant...

Philomena - Black eyes... since both parents have it and it's dominant, chances were quite high.

Phil - We talked about two of the five pillars of population genetics, we talked about natural selection and sexual selection. What are the other three pillars?

Philomena - There's genetic flow, when one gene from a population comes into another population, so new blood into your existing population; and we have also seen genetic drift. Genetic drift is basically what happens within a population, especially if the population is small: you can see the frequency of genes changing. And especially if it's a little isolated population, this can have quite a big impact. And we have seen this also already in the game when we talked about the eye colour. If you have a little population and just one gene just randomly keeps popping up everywhere, then you can see the effect of genetic drift.

Phil - So over time we might get, among all our animals, a lot more black eye genes than we used to.

Philomena - Exactly, if by random chance the black eye gene keeps being passed down.

Phil - Cool. And the fifth one?

Philomena - The fifth one is mutation: when, based on random chance, your genes change. Usually this process is pretty random. In the game you can influence it a little bit: with each animal you can select a mutation that you would like to have, and then your offspring has a certain chance to actually show this mutation.

Phil - How close do you think all this is to real life in a group of animals?

Philomena - I think it's pretty abstract, but it still catches the basic principle of how it actually works. We also have a free educational version available and we have about 300 biology teachers who use it in class.

Phil - Most importantly, how can I win?

Philomena - You can never win.

Phil - I can never win?

Philomena - You can never win. In sandbox mode, that you're currently playing, you are just making your own challenges basically and trying to survive as long as you can. In the story mode there actually is a way to win. You started off with the little tiger animal, Adam, and you were kidnapped from your original island, so your goal would be to find a way back home to the original island. And then there's two possible endings to the game, because Adam had a very special immunity gene that only Adam has. If you get back there but you lost the special gene along the way because it wasn't passed down, then your original family doesn't recognise you anymore and you're just a stranger on this island. But if you manage to pass it down over all these generations, then they will recognise you and welcome you back into their family, which is the true ending of the game.


Add a comment