B.U.S.T. is an ecological art / puzzle game. In the game you design and program BOTs to survive in an ever-changing world. There are various Turmite agents in the game which generate pixel patterns representing nature, climate, technology and civilization. Waves of colour sweep across the screen from epoch to epoch. As the system becomes more chaotic the players must program their BOTs to CONVERT, EAT and EXCRETE coloured pixels across the map – trying to restore balance and rescue the planet from destruction.


B.U.S.T. was originally commissioned by Phoenix to run in their Gallery. It has been adapted for online use and is available at Phoenix at Home’s digital offer for the next year while the Phoenix undergoes renovation.

The first thing we did was buy all of James Lovelock’s books. He wrote about one a decade since the 1970s and is still alive aged over 100! We researched his ideas and started to think about how we would represent the Gaian hypothesis of planetary self-regulation.

Daisyworld Model

Lovelock came up with this computer program in the 1980s in collaboration with Andrew Watson. In the model, Daisyworld is seeded with a mix of black and white daisies. White daisies reflect light cooling their region down, while black daisies absorb light heating up their region. As you increase the temperature from the Sun the populations of the daisies change but the overall average temperature remains constant. This happens without any central control system in place. It is a self-regulating planet-wide system. Lovelock considered Daisyworld one of his greatest inventions. It is fairly easy to code which we shall leave as an exercise to the reader.

We knew we wanted a cellular automata type game in which players could control programmable bots but that was about it. We came across the name Biocybernetic Universal System Tendency (B.U.S.T.) which was the original proposal for what became known as GAIA. It’s interesting to think how GAIA theory would have gone down had it had the more descriptive but less poetic name.

B.U.S.T. seemed a good fit for our game. We wanted to include the sense of civilizations rising and falling to match the epic scope of GAIA. We had used a type of cellular automata called Turmites before as a way to demo how simple rules can create complex waves of activity. We decided to expand the Turmite’s capabilities and this became the heart of the game.

Cellular Automata

A cellular automata is a common model used in computer science. It consists of a regular grid of cells. Each cell has a state such as on or off or a fitness value or a colour. A neighbourhood is defined around each cell. Finally, the automata also has a set of rules. Each cell looks at its own neighbourhood and applies the rules to see what state it goes into next. All cells act simultaneously and are then redrawn on the grid. Then the rules are applied again and so on. Cellular Automata can be used to model almost anything, including growth, bacteria, slime moulds, traffic jams, and civilizations.


The game takes place on a shared arena 150 by 60 cells in size. There are 10 Turmites creating their own patterns. The Turmites are interminable and can never be destroyed, but they can be controlled. They can also mutate. They change the environment and the basic resources available in the game. You can think of them as ‘nature’.

Each Turmite is quite simple and does three things repeatedly:

1) moves forward one square
2) changes the colour of the grid square it has landed on
3) and possibly turns left or right

Each Turmite has a rule which determines how it changes the colours and whether it turns. The rule moves the Turmite around the grid forming different patterns. Because the grid is small, Turmites will also come across other Turmites and so the outcomes are even more varied – sometimes ordered – sometimes chaotic. Some Turmites have a series of rules and create more diverse patterns.


Each day the game enters a different ages:

Monday: The Age of the Turmites
Tuesday: Blue Ages
Wednesday: Green Ages
Thursday: Age of Construction
Friday: Age of Worms
Saturday: Age of Fire
Sunday: Age of the Robots

In each age, different types of Turmites will appear, including Rivers Turmites, Fire Turmites and Spiral Constructors. These Turmites have special abilities. You will also meet special Bots along the way. Can you design and program a Bot that will last the night?


Each BOT has a small program made up of different instructions. Some of these instructions have colours to indicate inputs and outputs.


Combine the instructions to form a plan of action. You can explore the mechanics of the system, seeing how long you can make your BOT last. Each instruction costs energy to carry out. The only way to gain energy is to EAT food which you will have to find. The FOOD will change in value depending on how many of each colour is available. Try not to eat scarce colours. If you get stuck you can manually STEER your BOT about using the STEER mode. You can EXCRETE coloured cells RED, GREEN, BLUE and YELLOW. WHITE cells will form long-lasting walls which can keep away some of the environmental effects. If you get to 3000 points then you will self-replicate, splitting into two BOTS. Your child BOT will be similar to you but slightly different. How many times can you self-replicate?


The B.U.S.T. system as a whole represents the combination of nature and technology. Human designed machines (the BOTS) must work to restore the balance of the endless natural changes which sweep across the world (the TURMITES). It is an example of a complex adaptive system. We are particularly interested in creating simple systems on the edge of chaos which humans can interact with. This game encourages the exploration of an interconnected system.


The comic gives a guide to the game, introduces the Turmites and Bots and introduces historical ideas about regulation and computer science. You can pick up a physical copy of the Comic for free at the Phoenix.