Sex, video games, and why evolution has the answer

Dr Michael Kasumovic discusses how playing video games and studying the behaviours of crickets and spiders helps to explain why we look for certain traits in a mate…

Maths and physics do an incredible job of helping us to understand the natural world. From planetary motion, to climate change, and even how proteins fold, maths and physics use rules to simplify complex systems. But maths and physics alone fall short when explaining how complex biological systems function because of the myriad of imperfections. The beauty of exploring such complexity in these imperfections falls into the realm of evolutionary biology.

Evolutionary biology explores the interconnectedness and diversity of all life. It simplifies the complexity innate in biological systems through three simple concepts: that traits vary, that they are heritable, and that success depends on the expression of these traits. These three simple ideas not only explain the diversity of life, but also complex behaviours from the mates we choose and even the video games we play. Which works out well because that is exactly what I study.

One of the questions our lab explores is what makes a good mate. More accurately we’re interested in understanding why so much variation in mates exists if males and females have very strong preferences for specific traits. Our research using crickets and spiders provides an interesting answer: variation exists because the level of competition for mates changes through time.

Just like a craftsman assesses a job and uses the tools that will lead to the best outcome, our spiders and crickets assess the availability of mates and the intensity of competition (through smells and sounds) and develop traits that maximize their success. Environmental information triggers molecular changes altering the genes individuals express. This leads to developmental changes that last through adult life. When male crickets hear more competition they take longer to mature, grow larger, and call more throughout their life; all this to increase their success in competition. But if competition is sparse, males mature more quickly, are smaller, and call less. This allows males to divert the energy into more appropriate traits and behaviours, like survival. Why waste energy on being big when you have no one to compete against?

But what do spiders and crickets have to do with humans and video games? It turns out it’s more than you would expect. Although evolution shaped crickets and spiders to simply respond to environmental stimuli, evolution shaped us to be able to cognitively assess our environment and respond more rapidly. We are very plastic in both development and behaviour and are excellent at assessing our environment and our likelihood to succeed. But unlike our ability to pit two crickets to the death to learn about the traits that maximize competitive success, we need to be a little gentler with humans. This is where video games come in.

Using video games allows us to manipulate who wins in a competition, how they perceive themselves, and therefore how they behave. By doing so, we can ask various questions to better understand human behaviours and cultures. We can ask simple questions about what drives us to play video games and why we choose the games we do. But things are more fun when we use video games to explore what individuals find attractive in a mate and why we alter what we prefer in a mate. We can even explore how we respond to conflict and use this to understand why men are sexist and which men are most likely to behave this way.

Being an evolutionary biologist is a humbling experience because you learn that there is very little that separates us from all life on this planet. This is because the same selective pressure that shaped all other plants and animals also shaped us. It’s also the best job in the world because each day I come in to work study sex and video games.

Michael Kasumovic is a Senior Lecturer and ARC Future Fellow in the School of BEES. And yes, in the little spare time he has, he does love playing video games. You can find out more about his research at http://www.michaelkasumovic.com.

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