The evolution of language? There's an app for that

May 14, 2018, Max Planck Society
The evolution of language? There's an app for that
Excerpt from the promotional video for the Color Game app. Credit: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

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 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 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.

The Color Game promotional video. Credit: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
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 . 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."

Explore further: Linguistic and cultural knowledge affect whether languages are identified correctly

More information: The Color Game Website:

Related Stories

Social interaction drives language learning game

June 22, 2016

Games are usually more fun when you play with other people, but if you're playing an educational game, interacting with other players may help you learn more, according to Cornell research.

Gamers who buy advantages are respected less by other players

August 5, 2015

How do gamers perceive other gamers that buy an in-game advantage using microtransactions (real money)? In studies with 532 active gamers as participants, psychologists from Tilburg University and UC Berkeley found that players ...

Recommended for you

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...

A river of stars in the solar neighborhood

February 15, 2019

Astronomy & Astrophysics publishes the work of researchers from the University of Vienna, who have found a river of stars, a stellar stream in astronomical parlance, covering most of the southern sky. The stream is relatively ...

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet May 14, 2018
Actual evolution of language would have allowed individuals to use gesture, showing by example eg finding something else Black and pointing to it, using expressive grunts and so on.

Assuming that Language evolved with humans (homo sapiens), then symbolic language evolved some 200,000 years after general language communication and was clearly not present at the dawn of language. If Homo erectus had a simple language then that places the evolution of language a further million years before the symbolic form researched here.

The language apparently researched here does not involve the genesis of language, missing it by hundreds of thousands of years, but on the transition of language to symbolic form which we already know evolved via cave paintings, sand paintings and other symbolic forms, examples of which still exist today.

It is also noteworthy that practical information exchange, and not the colour of abstract objects, would have been populated first form of communication.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.