Posted August 21, 2013 by Dr. Henri Montandon in artificial intelligence

Golly GOL wizard and The Game of Life


The Game Of Life (not the board game by Hasbro/Funskool!) is a mathematical ‘zero-player game’ – the player can’t intervene after the game has started. Technically, it’s a type of cellular automaton, the brainchild of British mathematician John Conway, which became very popular in the 1970s after an article about this game was published by Martin Gardner in Scientific American. The game originated as a solution of a problem presented by John von Neumann. The task was to create a hypothetical machine that could replicate itself. The Game Of Life or simply, Life, is a mathematical model of such a machine. It was named “Game of Life” since the rules of the game are similar to life of an organism albeit over-simplified.[i]

From the Golly manual for users:

The Game of Life is a simple example of a set of rules more broadly known as a “cellular automaton”, or CA for short. CAs were first studied in the mid-1950s by Stanislaw Ulam and John von Neumann but became much more widely known in 1970 when Conway’s Life was described by Martin Gardner in his Scientific American column.
















Life is played on an arbitrary-sized grid of square cells. Each cell has two states: “dead” or “alive”. The state of every cell changes from one “generation” to the next according to the states of its 8 nearest neighbors: a dead cell becomes alive (a “birth”) if it has exactly 3 live neighbors; a live cell dies out if it has less than 2 or more than 3 live neighbors. The “game” of Life simply involves starting off with a pattern of live cells and seeing what happens.

Even though the rules for Life are completely deterministic, it is impossible to predict whether an arbitrary starting pattern will die out, or start oscillating, or expand forever. Life and other CAs provide a powerful demonstration of how a very simple system can generate extremely complicated results.

Golly is a cross-platform application for exploring John Conway’s Game of Life and other cellular automata. It’s also free and open source. More details, including links to the source and binary distributions, are available at the Golly web site:

Is The Game of Life the egg that will hatch all that we can understand? For fans of A NEW KIND OF SCIENCE, by Steven Wolfram, the case is made. For others, not so much.

But golly, it sure is fun to play with, and Golly is a well-designed, easy to use application to with on play it. (I was trying to make this last sentence even more horrendously agrammatical than it is, but hey, life on goes.)

What Ulam, von Neumann and Conway did was to figure out a way of making a simple set of rules draw complicated patterns. Hmmm… complicated patterns… simple rules…. Doesn’t that sound a bit like what science hopes to do? And especially… gulp… the science of consciousness?

There is an easy-to-use rule book, a nice big board to play on, and only time’s relentless passage to interrupt your fun. Onward!


































It is assumed that Conway’s Game of Life was named by Conway, but no one I have queried is willing to bet more than two pounds on the answer. If you can prove the provenance to be other than JHC, we will give you a subscription to Society for Mind Brain Sciences.






Dr. Henri Montandon