Chris Steussy
BHP Teacher, California, USA


This was one of those lessons that could so easily have flopped. I was worried the kids wouldn’t have enough context. I was worried there wouldn’t be enough buy in, enough time, or worse, too much. I felt like we needed some sort of application of our newfound understanding of evolution by natural selection. We’ve written a lot of essays. We’ve done presentations and a lot of cartooning. We needed something different. I’ve always wanted to make a Big History game but that seemed too much. The Game of Life, the classic board game I played as a kid, and recently played with my kids, sprung to mind. I wondered though, if my students would even have heard of it.

The Game of Life 1960 version, courtesy magisterrex

First I found two simple graphics. I found an image of the classic board. Then I found a video of TV ads for the Game of Life from the 50s-90s (they are not super helpful, but funny and campy).

Day 1 – Intro and game making

I started with a simple question, and this was where I knew if this was even going to get off the ground. “How many of you have heard of, played or seen the ‘Game of Life’?” To my surprise, in each of my two sections of 36+ 13-14 year old freshmen, over half of the kids raised their hands. I asked one to explain the basic rules. Then I said, “Great, now stop. I want you to invent your own game of life but it must be life on an evolutionary scale, across billions of years.” I showed the YouTube ads and the image of the game board. Then I put up the following instructions.



  • At least one hundred stops along the board (you may copy layout of original game board but you do not have to).


  • Life’s universal common ancestor (LUCA)
  • Extinction events
  • Cards for energy or resources
  • Setbacks
  • Thresholds
  • Goldilocks conditions
  • Cyborgs
  • Aliens
  • Etc.


  • Game play
  • What does it mean to “win”?
  • Big History concepts (Scale)


Then I turned them loose, alone or in small groups. I promised the winning team Big History T-shirts. Then I texted Bob Regan and I asked for T-shirts. He texted right back. We were in.

We have 90-minute blocks and by the time they started we had over 60 minutes left. I told them they would have a ten-minute head start and then I would check on them. After 10 minutes of pretending to check e-mail and doing teacher things I said, “Ready or not, here I come!” With pen and paper I checked in on each group, wrote down names, answered questions and gave guidance. Every group or individual worked right up to the bell. I promised they could come in at lunch, or during my prep time, several did. In the next class they would have 20 minutes to strategize on presenting.

Day 2 – Present and play

After 20 minutes of group strategizing, each group got 5 minutes to present and they were amazing. Some were obviously the product of many hours of work. Some had very clever game play, like when anyone hits an extinction event everybody returns to the start. Some games ended with evolution to a “higher” being, others ended in the death of all life. With the balance of class they played their own games or anyone else’s game.


Day 3 – Vote

We voted. In each class there was exactly one very poor game. Of the 7 or 12 remaining in each they were all 90-100%.

Next year, to do it differently, I might bring the game in with all of the variety of cards and get kids to think about what cards they might have. I think I’ll also emphasize the mini-thresholds of life (which we had just seen).

In the end it turns out 21st century kids are gamers. And they don’t need to be video games.



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