Natural Selection.

Longer study in progress. Best on desktop in webkit browsers. Click here to interact. 

Clicking a dot removes that dot and causes random remaining dot to reproduce. Reproducing dots spawn another dot with similar speed, size and color. If a player clicks all the big and slow dots then the dots will naturally evolve to be smaller, faster, and lighter—and harder to click.

The original (made in Flash way back when) was really quick to rough out, but little details have had a significant impact on how the work ‘reads’. It’s also reminded me of some larger questions, a couple of which I’ll note below.


Originally there was only a chance of reproduction and the goal was to remove all the dots. I liked the earlier version because it provided a kind of built in assessment—a player needed to select for slow big ones before attempting to remove all the dots—but it tended to obscure the reproduction, sometimes making it appear that the last dots were just the ones the player had ignored until then. The version above doesn’t have the built in assessment, but it does feel much more like an interactive population.

Another earlier version (also in Flash) had a graph that presented the continually changing average size and speed of the dots. I haven’t yet reproduced this in my Framer port. It should probably come back though because it really helps a user reflect on what’s happened over the course of their interaction. This reflection is extra important because the piece isn’t provided inside of an environment where debriefing can take place.

Debriefing and Effectiveness

Generally, this kind of interactive calls for some kind of debriefing (Crookall, 2010) to make sure the learners are actually learning; but I wonder if that’s always the case.

I’m using a kind of ‘head-fake’ strategy here, where a simple goal is presented and the player is left to unexpectedly discover, en route, the main point. In my experience this technique is really effective when the main point is dramatically clear, but it can cause more confusion if the main point is not apparent enough. In these cases, when I’m one-on-one with a student, I usually have to ask them to just forget everything I just said—better to try a different direction than to elaborate on a broken example.  (There’s a really great example of this in Eco’s Name of the Rose between William of Baskerville and his pupil Adso.)

I wonder how much of the value of debriefing is tied to an interactive information piece  just not foregrounding the salient phenomena enough.

Explanation vs. Discovery 

We could call this sketch an ‘interactive explanation’, but if this sketch communicates anything about natural selection, I think it does so by presenting an opportunity for discovery rather than an explanation; It relies on the salient phenomena ‘popping out’ to the user instead of providing an elaboration on traditional descriptions of natural selection (using text, pictures, audio. etc.)

One thing I think this kind of approach can sometimes do is better appropriate the actions of the user into the rhetoric of the piece. That is to say, instead of saying ‘here is a representation of a phenomena’ an exploration piece makes a broader statement like  ‘this is how these kinds of phenomena should be explored’.

I’m curious about the effects that these two approaches have — assuming that they really are two distinct approaches — on learners’ learning.

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