Brief introduction to Conway Game of Life with Comonads

In this article we take a look at Conway’s Game of Life as a good example for comonad usage. We will go step-by-step through basic concepts finally presenting an example of Conway’s Game of Life implementation.


Functor is a polymorphic type that is able to wrap values in it. These values can be mapped over using some function. This function is often called map or fmap, depending on language’s convention. In Haskell, this kind of type belongs to Functor type class.

class Functor f where
  fmap :: (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

The simplest example you have probably dealt with is a list. List of values can be simply mapped over by iterating over them, applying function to it and packing them back to the list (to immutable copy or modifying existing list).

Also well known case is Maybe functor. It allows to do null-safe computations without tedious checking of null references with control flow statements. Also there is richer functor called Either that allows to return a failure with error details attached (Left) or can wrap a value coming from successful computation (Right).

We can say that functor gives value (or values) a context that attaches specific behavior to it.


Comonads, as name suggests, is a monad, but in an opposite category. By definition, if we have function a -> b, then in opposite category it would be b -> a. So, let’s rephrase Monad type class into Comonad type class using this play:

class Functor m => Monad m where
  return :: a -> m a
  join :: m (m a) -> m a
  bind :: (a -> m b) -> m a -> m b

class Functor w => Comonad w where
  coreturn :: w a -> a
  cojoin :: w a -> w (w a)
  cobind :: (w a -> b) -> w a -> w b

Comonads can be thought as a universe of values that has one distinguished point. To get that point we can call coreturn.

cobind corresponds to bind function and it works like this. cobind takes the universe and for each point creates an instance of comonad that looks at this point. Then cobind calls function of type w a -> b on these copies, resulting a new universe that is made of b-s. cojoin does exactly same thing, but only provides these copies of universes.

You can see that you need implement coreturn and either cobind or cojoin to get the instance of Comonad.

For the rest of article we will call coreturn as extract, cobind as extend and cojoin as duplicate.

Store comonad

So let consider a pair of values: an index of type s and function s -> a that accesses early mentioned universe of values of type a. This is Store comonad.

data Store s a = Store s (s -> a)

Shall we implement Comonad type class? Let’s try implement extract.

extract :: Store s a -> a
extract (Store idx get) = get idx

duplicate :: (Store s a -> b) -> Store s a -> Store s b
duplicate f (Store idx get) = Store idx (\i -> f (Store i get))

You can compare this implementation with the explanation of extend above.

Game of Life v. Store

Game of Life, first of all, is a cellular automata. It has an infinite discrete plain filled with two kind of cells — dead or alive. Each cell in each step is transformed by provided rules, and these rules are:

  • if current cell is dead and has three alive neighbours, then cell becomes alive;
  • if current cell is alive and has two or three alive neighbours, then cell still is alive;
  • otherwise cell becomes dead.

We can start implementing this automaton by describing the board.

type Coord = (Int, Int)
type CellPlane a = Store Coord a
data Conway = Dead | Alive deriving (Eq)

Game Of Life is an experiment

We need to obtain the state of neighbouring cells around the focused cell. We can implement function called experiment in this way:

experiment :: Functor f => (s -> f s) -> Store s a -> f a
experiment f (Store idx get) = fmap get (f idx)

This function passes the current index into the function s -> f s resulting with f s. Since f is a functor, we can map f s with get.

If we’ll consider a list as our functor f, this gives as a way to get neighbourhood.

neighboursOf :: Coord -> [Coord]
neighboursOf (x, y) = [ (x + d, y + d') | d <- [-1..1], d' <- [-1..1], (d, d') /= (0, 0) ]

neighbouringCells :: CellPlane Conway -> [Conway]
neighbouringCells = experiment neighboursOf

Game Of Life rules

So now we can easily write the rules of Game Of Life.

golStep :: CellPlane Conway -> Conway
golStep p = case extract p of
  Dead  | noOfNeighbours == 3          -> Alive
  Alive | noOfNeighbours `elem` [2, 3] -> Alive
  _                                    -> Dead
  -- @noOfNeighbours@ = number of neighbouring cells that are alive
  noOfNeighbours = length (filter (== Alive) (neighbouringCells p))

Now we need to embed an initial state (given by Map Coord Conway) into the comonad…

toCellPlane :: Map Coord Conway -> CellPlane Conway
toCellPlane cs = State (0, 0) access
  -- If we are out of bounds we assume that cell is dead.
  access (x, y) = fromMaybe Dead (Map.lookup (x, y) cs)

…as well as we want to extract a finite view of the cell plane.

data Rect = Rect { x :: Int
                 , y :: Int
                 , w :: Int
                 , h :: Int
fromCellPlane :: CellPlane Conway -> Rect -> Map Coord Conway
fromCellPlane p (Rect x y w h) = Map.fromList (coords `zip` experiment (const coords) p)
  coords = [(i, j) | i <- [x .. x + w - 1], j <- [y .. y + h - 1]]

Finally we can create an inifite list of evolutions using iterate function, that repeatedly calls provided function to it (in our case it’s extend golStep):

evolutions :: CellPlane Conway -> [CellPlane Conway]
evolutions = iterate (extend golStep)

With these three functions — from/toCellPlane and evolutions — we can implement a program that runs Game of Life.


Undoubtly, this is an interesting way to describe various cellular automata, using ideas that comes from category theory. Also comonads provides a way to generalise cellular automata to other spaces than just infinite plane.

Only disadvantage of this solution is an exponential growth of running time, because at each extending the state of the plane is computed from scratch and memoising these computations could be useful. This can be easily achieved in Haskell using trie-based pure memoisers or in Scala using a mutable HashMap to memoise partial results.