A video game based on Conway's Game of Life, running in Excel

The game designer and artist Yifat Shaik has just released "The Workplace Saga", a video game based on Conway's "Game of Life" ruleset that runs in Excel as a set of macros.

It's an ingenious and lovely way of blending the metaphoric payload of Conway's game (from very simple rules comes complex, gorgeous behavior) with the metaphoric payload of the corporate spreadsheet, which is somewhat the reverse: An attempt to impose order and sanity on the complex mess of everyday reality.

I've often thought that digital spreadsheets are some of the most consequential pieces of software ever created. When I suggested this recently on Twitter, Steven Levy pointed me to a fantastic essay he wrote 30 years ago called "A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge". As he pointed out in that 1984 piece, spreadsheets were allowing everyday worker bees to create models and conduct "what if" experiments with a sophistication previously impossible. The models were often commercially useful (what would happen if we made 35% more widgets at 15% lower cost compared to 80% more widgets at 32% lower cost?) … but Levy's interviewees also talked about the rich pleasures of model-making itself, quite apart from their subject matter:

Spreadsheet models have become a form of expression, and the very act of creating them seem to yield a pleasure unrelated to their utility. Unusual models are duplicated and passed around; these templates are sometimes used by other modelers and sometimes only admired for their elegance.

This is what struck me about Shaik's game: "Workplace Saga" taps neatly into the weird joys, and joyful weirdness, hidden inside this otherwise mundane everyday business tool.

(Courtesy Debbie Chachra and Alex Leitch)