I came across an interesting example of evolution that illustrates some of its important features: video game speedrunning. Instead of going for leisurely enjoyment, players frantically attempt to complete video games in the fastest possible time, gleefully taking advantage of glitches and quirks, some pretty mindblowing, while others take a robot to pull off. Finding and exploiting glitches is considered part of the “optimization,” rather than cheating, as noted:
Many viewers have an expectation that speedruns clear the game using only the tools intentionally given by the developers. This is an explicit constraint on the run brought on by an internal perception of the game. This by itself is not inherently wrong or incorrect, but it is based on an attachment to the game. Speedruns in the unconstrained case are separated from this in that the game itself is no longer regarded as a game, but is instead the medium. The “game” then becomes the optimization problem, while the medium is just a set of implicit constraints. In this sense, there is no such thing as a glitch, provided that nothing external to the medium impacts it.
This YouTube channel traces the history of a number of games, including classics like Super Mario Brothers, Super Mario 64, and The Legend of Zelda. You can also watch attempts on Twitch or see speedrunning for charity World record strategies evolve much like living organisms:
- Optimization via heredity and mutation. That is, a player can start with a good strategy and refine it with changes.
- Tons of trial and error.
- Modularity. A newly discovered approach or glitch can often be used in sequence with previously known techniques.
- Progress can come in tiny improvements (tweaks) or major revolutions (jumps). As a result, the world record can remain stable for years, then be broken successively several times in one week. This is reminiscent of punctuated equilibrium.
- Glitches pierce the surface layer of reality to reveal the actual nuts-and-bolts of the games. Some evolutionary adaptations, like photosynthesis and magnetoreception, rely on the quantum-mechanical nature of our Universe.