Here's a chance to live the life of an ant


April 22, 1991|By Rory J. O'Connor | Rory J. O'Connor,Knight-Ridder News Service

ORINDA, Calif. -- Will Wright and Justin McCormick are a different breed of programmer. Where others try to write software that's free of bugs, the next Wright and McCormick program will be crawling with them.

Specifically, it will be crawling with as many as 1,500 ants -- and you can be one of them.

Working at Maxis Inc., the two programmers are creating a computer game called SimAnt that eschews the usual fare of fighter pilots, knights in armor or space warriors. Instead of war, they drew their inspiration from "The Ants," the extraordinary, 750-page definitive work on the ubiquitous insects and their behavior -- and winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

Using the book as a sort of ant bible, the pair are creating a realistic simulation of an ant colony that's trying to take over a suburban back yard.

Like their natural counterparts, the simulated ants must overcome a multitude of obstacles that include a competing ant colony, voracious spiders and humans who flood the nest whenever they water their lawn.

Maxis knows a lot of people will laugh at the idea of a game that lets you manage an ant colony. But company President Jeff Braun says the game is not a joke.

"At first you think, 'Ants, what the hell?' " he says. "But after you get into it, it's really deep."

Indeed, "The Ants" is the culmination of years of research by Harvard University biologists Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson, who has devoted his life to studying social insects, making it an ideal schematic for the game.

"Wilson has done so much work on ant communication that it's now possible to reverse-engineer a colony," Mr. Wright said. "We're trying to make a person feel like they're an ant."

While the game is still in development -- it's not expected to be finished until at least the end of the summer -- Mr. Wright and Mr. McCormick have decided on many of the accurate technical details they will include in the game.

For example, one of your jobs as you maneuver your 3-D ant through the colony will be to lay chemical trails about such things as the location of food, which is precisely how columns of real ants behave.

"The trails are digital. They tell ants what direction the food is in, how far away it is," Mr. Braun said.

Players also will have to dig their underground nests wisely, in order to defend their queen successfully from the inevitable attacks from the next colony.

And, true to ant form, dying in this game "is not a big deal," Mr. Wright said. Unlike typical computer games, where you must start over if you die, SimAnt just keeps going; you simply pop back up as another ant.

In an effort to make the game educational as well as entertaining, Mr. Wright and Mr. McCormick plan to include lots of informational screens about ant behavior. They've even written Mr. Wilson, asking him if he'd like to help. He said he hasn't read the letter yet -- it arrived about the same time as his Pulitzer Prize notice -- but he said the project didn't surprise him. "In this computer age, anything is possible."

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