The Evolution of Language? There’s an App for That

A smartphone game designed by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History aims to study how languages evolve

May 15, 2018

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have designed a smartphone game to model the evolution of language. Players take up the challenge of communicating colors to each other using only black and white symbols. By studying how the use of the symbols changes over time, scientists hope to learn more about how real languages evolve.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany have just launched the Color Game, an app designed to provide a new way to study language evolution. The game asks players to communicate specific colors to each other using only a series of black and white symbols. It allows large numbers of players to interact freely and build shared visual languages. The data is already helping scientists understand how human communication systems evolve.

A game designed for scientific research

“Linguists have used data from pre-existing online games before, but building a gaming app specifically to research language evolution is new,” explains project leader Olivier Morin.

The Color Game is designed to resolve some of the issues inherent in laboratory studies by experimenting on language at a large scale, while allowing large numbers of participants to interact in real time as often as they choose and with a wide variety of partners, as Morin and his team explain in a recently accepted paper in the Journal of Language Evolution.

One player is presented with a target color, that they then attempt to communicate to another player without using any words. Instead they make use of a defined set of black and white symbols that have no associations with a particular shade of color.

Studying how languages evolve

Difficult as this may sound, players are able to reach the correct result more often than would occur by chance. Players also get better at it, as once-neutral symbols acquire meanings that they lacked at the start of the game. Players are creating a language together, in the very act of using it.

“The Color Game is not a puzzle game, it’s not about decoding symbols,” explains Morin. “The only code that has to be broken is the language that you and the other players will invent.”

Further Information

The Color Game Webseite:

Publication: Journal of Language Evolution paper: O. Morin, J. Winters, T.F. Müller, T. Morisseau, C. Etter, S.J. Greenhill. What smartphone apps may contribute to language evolution research. Journal of Language Evolution (accepted).

The Color Game presentation paper:

The Color Game, Android App Store:

The Color Game, Apple App Store:

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