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Digital DNA Swap Meet
by Mark Frauenfelder

9:08 a.m. July 9, 1997 PDT

Poor little Tamagotchi. Confined to its spartan, one-inch-square pen, with no playmates, and nothing to stimulate it other than a pointless game, the Japanese creature is little more than a pet rock with irritable bowel-syndrome, waking its bored owner at 3 a.m. with a plaintive beep to press the "food" button.

When Tamagotchi sleeps, it dreams of being a cute and fuzzy "norn," a virtual critter equipped with a unique genetic code and neural-net brain. Norns - which like the Tamagotchi, hatch from eggs - live in a complex, challenging world called Albia, replete with hazards and opportunities that cause it to become more intelligent over time. Norns are part of a computer program called Creatures, which was released in the UK in November, and the US in May.



Measly maggots try to make mincemeat out of poor Deadrat. Hang in there Deadrat, in Deadrat: Episode 1 Michiel Hoving. (779 KB, Flash)

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— A technologists' group participant says public closed circuit TV systems do little to prevent attacks or identify suspects.


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Stop the Presses
Journalists have never fared too well before the bar of American public opinion. Being a reporter has been generally considered a "low" profession, a sleazy cousin of the politician and lawyer. That view is changing in the wake of Sept. 11, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Thanks mainly to TV newscasters wearing their patriotism on their sleeves, the public no longer perceives the press as venal, unethical and dishonest. Now they laud journalists for "standing up for America." Pity. It's not the media's job to stand up for America. It's the media's job to keep John Q. Public informed, so he can stand up for America. Or not, as he wishes.

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  Today's Headlines
5:06 p.m. Nov. 28, 2001 PST

In this installment of Fringe, we'll take a look at the fans of Creatures, who've established dozens of outposts on the Net dedicated to the exploration of what Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, calls "a giant leap forward into a new and unknown world."


A virtual 4-H Club or SimMengele for digital sadists?

Turf:, Creatures homepage

Tools & Weapons: Nornfamily, Hyper-Carrot-Dispenser, Power Infusion

Affiliates: Dogz and Catz breeders, Nerm-o-nauts.

Enemies: grendels,

Quote: "There is no trick: These enchanting, irresistible, quasi-conscious little pets live in real time on the screen of your ordinary home computer. Call it a game if you like, but this is the most impressive example of artificial life I have seen."
- Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene.

Field Notes: When Creature Breeders first began excitedly discussing the game, many of them set up camp at, and were quickly given the boot by members of that newsgroup, who said that was for discussion of the AI technology behind games, not for tips and tricks. Since then Breeders (the label many Creatures aficionados have adopted) have set up their own newsgroup,, where breeding tips are swapped along with norn eggs, and the ethics of free-breeding versus genetic hacking are discussed along with the consequences of crossing a "highlander" norn with a "9-lobed supergenius" norn.

Creatures Breeders Q&A

Rob Sedgebeer is a 21-year-old graduate of Computing at Loughborough University. He runs The Creatures Exchange.

Alexander Laemmle, 28, is a nurse at a dialyses ward in Salzburg, Austria. He has written several popular programs used to hack and enhance Creatures.

Cali ("aka Aquinoctria") Zimmerman, a 13-year-old student, runs Norns, Etc.

Neal Preece, 32, works for Next, a major fashion retailer in the UK. He runs Nooga's Web site.

November, 23, runs The norn Society from his home in Bristol, Virginia.

Do Breeders feel emotionally attached to their norns?

Sedgebeer: It's not uncommon for younger Breeders to burst in to tears when their first norns die. I even got an email from a fully grown man who admitted he cried when his favorite norn died!

Laemmle: When a new norn is born, well, it's some strange kind of feeling - just like when you get a pet ... and when a norn dies it's always very sad. But it's not like being attached to a "nonvirtual lifeform."

Preece: I was attached to my first two, Musa and Tou. When Tou died, it was quite disturbing! But hey - I had backed him up, so now he lives on!

November: A lot of people have complained about such a short life span of the little fellows. Many people do feel a little bit of remorse upon losing one of the little guys.

Is there any special Creatures jargon?

November: "Grenorn," which is a cross between a grendel and a norn. "Free Breed" is another I have come across, used to describe uncontrolled breeding.

How do you make a Grenorn?

Sedgebeer: There are two types of animals in Creatures, norns and grendels. Norns are the creatures the user is supposed to breed and care for. Grendels, on the other hand, are the "bad guys" who spread viruses and beat up the norns. They're hatched by a machine hidden in Albia, and you're supposed to teach the norns to avoid them.

Cyberlife [the makers of Creatures] always stated that crossbreeding a grendel and a norn was impossible, but when the game came out, I took a look round the data files. Using a few tricks I managed to create a norn and grendel crossbreed (which looks like a norn, but has grendel tendencies), and thus the first "Grenorns" was born.

Do you have any interesting stories about something funny or unusual that has happened in Albia?

Sedgebeer: I had norn who had a sneaky way of getting away from the grendels. He would wait until they climbed in to a lift or a teleporter and the hit the button to start them up, before the grendel could get away!

Laemmle: The most beautiful scene I recall was two norns playing football with a carrotbeatle - they kicked it, the other one caught it and they kicked it back and forth. [Cyberlife reports that it never anticipated that norns would learn how to play catch. It claims this is "emergent behavior."]

November: One of the MOST unusual I have heard of is a norn that showed signs of telekinesis - moving objects without touching them.

What are some of the prized traits that Breeders look for?

Zimmerman: Interesting colors. Higher health. Interesting characteristics. Extreme intelligence. Anything like that interests most Breeders.

Sedgebeer: The current one seems to be the maximum number of "lobes" [neural units] a norn can have. I keep getting email from people about how they've bred a 10-lobed norn or an immortal 36-lobed norn.

Preece: Response, mainly. An understanding of your instructions, a belief in your commands.

What are some of the weirder mutations?

Sedgebeer: Must be either the "immortal" norns or the norn I was sent (a young female) who would run up to the grendels, give them several slaps then run away again!

Laemmle: The "sweet" norn and the "highlander" norn - both are nearly immortal. There are norns that shake - so-called 'shaking norns.' One 22-generation norn can't distinguish between tickling [the reward for good behavior] and hitting [discipline for bad behavior].

November: I would say the weirdest would be the "paralyzed" norn. Needless to say that they eventually die from starvation. Another would be the "immortal" norn. This is done though "selective breeding."

(Note: Each week in Fringe I present a mini-anthropological study of a Net-related subculture and its notable characters. If you would like to share your obsession, or know of a Net tribe I should explore, please email me.)

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