The Gaming Fields: crops, copyright and DIY genetic engineering

C Sven Johnson @ 30-09-2009

Sven Johnson reports back from the Future Imperfect once again. This time the IP boot is on the other foot, as a keen gamer casts a copyrighted GM crop in an extremely unfavourable light

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson

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I suppose I don’t need to ask how many of you have succumbed to the latest “farm game” revival craze. If you’re reading this column you’re almost certainly playing Genetic Seed, the latest in a seemingly never-ending stream of post-aquapocalyptic, real-time strategy MMOs; this one the obvious offspring of such classics as Food Risk and Germplasm II. However, if you’ve somehow remained oblivious and don’t want to google for an explanation, think of it as the cross-pollinated spawn of a scorched-earth Spore and one of those open source gene-splicing applications… only instead of critters, you play God with the plant life. The better your clan’s food, the stronger its fighters, the bouncier the babes, and so on.

If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for a game you’d want to play, you’re not alone. I didn’t think it sounded especially entertaining either. Then I decided to see what all the fuss was about and gave it a try.

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To be sure, it’s a wonderfully disturbing piece of work, but not being especially enamored with the usual rape, pillage ‘n’ plow game play, I quickly found myself spending time in a dirty bunker mixing ‘n modifying genes in an effort to create my own version of Audrey Jr/II; finding creative ways to survive in a post-aquapocalyptic, famine-stricken world with little more than a few untainted seeds, some Squaredown and a gene splicing machine can be surprisingly engaging.

Okay, so I was never a big fan of co-op play. What’s important is that plenty of other people also found the gene splicing side of the game significantly more interesting than the social networking side.

Anyone remember how quickly Spore‘s universe was populated with user-generated critters? Well, Genetic Seed‘s artificially modified plant catalog (a major part of the game’s virtual goods system) has been growing at a phenomenal rate. Needless to say, some of the genetic modifications players are submitting might actually be of genuine academic and commercial interest. Glyphosate-resistant vegetables never get old. And that is what makes this game out of thousands of others now worth everyone’s attention.

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Enter seventeen-year old David Brumsol, a bright lad from the UK more interested in designing virtual crops than collecting pixellated scalps; a Genetic Seed player who developed what game-players and agricultural scientists claim is an amazing grain – real or virtual. So amazing, in fact, it’s put agri-biz mega-corporation Nomsantle in the proverbial hot seat.

Our story begins shortly after the game’s release. In an effort to increase his clan’s agricultural yield, David spliced some fairly common DNA strands together into a biotech hybrid remarkably similar to Nomsantle’s market-dominating, genetically modified wheat; a product, we’re told, of decades of expensive scientific research into freeze- and herbicide-resistant plants.

What caught the attention of observers was that in the simulation, David’s two-week wonder grain significantly outperformed Nomsantle’s patented seed. His strain is so remarkable, in fact, that scientists are now asking tough questions of agriculture’s 500-lb gorilla. Questions such as: “How did Nomsantle not know this genetic strain had potentially superior traits to the patented wheat whose traits they now license?”and “Is there any truth to rumors Nomsantle discouraged researchers from experimenting with similar genetic strains; in effect telling them not to waste their time on variants such as David’s?

If true, in some jurisdictions Nomsantle could be found guilty of starving people for profit. Projected yields from David’s strain are sufficiently high that, should it be planted and perform as expected, grain prices would nosedive. Thus, it’s being suggested, rather than reveal the genetic composition David stumbled upon by patenting it or allow researchers to discover it on their own, Nomsantle kept a trade secret which needlessly cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Nomsantle’s public relations reps have yet to issue a statement. I’m guessing they didn’t expect some teen gamer to unearth this can of worms.

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Sven JohnsonSven Johnson is an unrooted freelance designer increasingly working at the intersection of tangible and virtual goods. His background is varied and includes a fair amount of travel, a pair of undergraduate degrees and a stint with the US military. He’s a passionate wannabe filmmaker, a once-upon-a-time underground comix creator, and – when facilities are available – an enthusiastic ceramicist who is currently attempting to assemble a transmedia, transreality open-source narrative in what remains of his lifetime.

[Future Imperfect header based on an image by Kaunokainen.]

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5 Responses to “The Gaming Fields: crops, copyright and DIY genetic engineering”

  1. Babylon says:

    Darn it, I wanna play a game that centers around designing crops.

  2. Jeremiah Tolbert says:

    That was great, really thought-provoking. I want to play the game too, actually.

  3. csven says:

    “the bouncier the babies”? huh???

    Okay, someone is editing my stuff to be more politically correct. *ahem*

    The original text was: “the bouncier the babes”.

    Y’know. Like booth babes. The chicks gaming nerds take pictures of at videogame expos.

  4. Paul Raven says:

    Ah, my mistake – genuinely thought it was a typo! Have now corrected back again. 🙂

  5. csven says:

    The babes are back! The babes are back!