2008-03-10 • Volume 2 • Issue 5


Will Wright is at it again. The video gaming genius behind the SimCity series practically invented the simulation genre, and in The Sims, he created the best-selling game of all time.  But now Wright has set his sights even higher. His newest project, titled Spore, aims to simulate nothing less than the entire history of life in the universe. Users take control of a tiny one-celled organism in the ocean on a simulated planet and gradually–very gradually–guide it onto land, up the food chain, into a civilized form, onward to world domination, and finally, to colonization of other planets and interaction with the other living creatures in the galaxy. The other planets in the universe are all human creations too, designed by all the other people who are playing Spore. The possibilities are literally endless for species design, behavior, and conquest, and for the discoveries which wait in the rest of the cosmos. Spore, if made properly, could well be the first-ever computer simulation of the origins of life on Earth. When it is released later this year, the game will impact the current cultural battles over evolution by making the unifying theory of biology popular, widely understood, and fun.

A few words about the game’s design will illustrate the breadth and depth of Will Wright’s vision. Spore is a collection of different games combined into one. It begins at the level of one-celled organisms floating around in the host planet’s primordial soup. This stage of the game is much like Pac-Man: you guide your microscopic amoeba around collecting food and avoiding being eaten by other tiny creatures. Eventually your cute little protozoan grows, reproduces, and begins to evolve into bigger organisms, which continues to float around eating and avoiding being eaten on your orders. After quite a while of this type of action, your species can eat other creatures, move onto land, and form primitive communities. If you have been both clever and lucky, your creatures might eventually form a society, at which point the game becomes a combination of The Sims and SimCity, except that the inhabitants of your city are unlikely to be human. A dash of Civilization is mixed in as your race of animals expands until it has taken over the world–unless you are of a more peaceful mind and would rather keep to yourself and dedicate resources to science, technology, and art.

The game becomes truly mind-boggling when your species is ready to enter the realm of outer space. Now SimCity is married to Galactic Civilizations in a game of interplanetary colonization–and perhaps conquest. Some of the other inhabitable spheres in the cosmos are populated by the creatures created by other players of Spore, who can share their species via the game’s website. In this way the whole adventure becomes a collaborative effort:  population of the universe by thousands of different gamers. Thus, what began as a simple game of Pac-Man mutates into an exploration of the universe which Carl Sagan could envy.

But you won’t reach this level of success automatically. You are in charge of designing your little creatures from the very beginning, and there is always the chance that they may go extinct on your watch. If your animals are useless for survival in the environment, get massacred by aliens, or even simply fail to reproduce, it’s back to the drawing board for a fresh start. And the successful design of your creatures is truly your responsibility: as your protagonists eat, reproduce, and move around, they accrue a crude sort of “DNA points,” which enable the player to alter the next generation of animals slightly. Maybe you’ll add primitive feet to your fish so it can go on land briefly.  These adaptations can either add up to success or result in disastrous failure. To add to the challenge facing players, fearsome predators are imported to the game from the Internet automatically if Spore realizes that your creation has reached the top of the food chain. The natural world is not a particularly friendly place, even in a family-friendly computer game.

The simulated universe in Spore is built upon a game engine designed not by Will Wright but by a reclusive British biologist who died in 1882 and left behind one of the most important theoretical advances in the history of science. Indeed, Spore could properly be called SimDarwin. It is in essence an artistic depiction of the evolutionary principle of natural selection. Players who pick up the game and struggle to create a dominant species are working to win the ultimate biological contest–the “survival of the fittest.” Wright designed the game to be that way; he tells audiences at conferences that Spore is an “evolutionary simulation.” It is about time such a game was made; after all, Spore, in which players design and control their own species, is the next logical step after The Sims, in which players design and control individual organisms. More importantly, Spore has the potential to take the unifying theory of biology into the mainstream of American culture, and could join the fight against the pseudoscientific forces of the intelligent design movement. The game’s designers never intended to take sides in the culture war raging over evolution, but given the nature of America today and the form which Spore has adopted, a new collision between science and its enemies is certain to take place.

Imagine the prospect of millions of children, teenagers, and adults snapping up a simulation which will allow them to control the evolution of a life-form from protozoan to interplanetary explorer. Imagine that this game is designed for everyone to enjoy due to its highly intuitive rules, limitless gameplay possibilities, cute sense of humor, and highly intelligent self-generating graphics system. As soon as players realize that the rules and open-ended possibilities are derived directly from evolutionary theory, an educational experience will ensue which would rankle hard-line creationists to no end. Imagine now one more thing: imagine what James Dobson and Pat Robertson will have to say about Spore.

Dobson’s reaction is predictable. The founder of Focus on the Family, and the man Christianity Today calls the most influential evangelical in America, organized a drive by his Colorado-based fundamentalist group to shoehorn “intelligent design” into Florida science classrooms. He also recently wrote that “perpetual and pernicious exposure to rock music is responsible” for teenage suicides and increases in sexual assault rates. Clearly the man is not a very sophisticated thinker, and his reaction to Spore will likely be unchecked rage.

More thoughtful creationists, though, will likely realize that they can actually fare better by expressing their support for Spore. While the game depicts evolutionary processes and contains an “evolution phase,” leading creationist thinkers will surely be glad to point out that it essentially remains an intelligent design simulation: granted, all the creatures are evolving, but the player is controlling the process! I might consider environmental factors and the likelihood of my species reproducing successfully when I spend my “DNA points” on some mutations, but ultimately the changes made to my creatures are decided upon by me–the intelligent designer. Spore invites people of all ages to play God.

Because of the presence of an in-game “creator” and Will Wright’s careful avoidance of controversy, little talk has arisen so far over the potential consequences of the game for the creation-evolution culture wars. The firm scientific basis of the program may help educate the millions of gamers who will invariably buy it, but Spore does not seem interested in validating or denying the claims of nearly a third of the American population, who believe that evolution was a process “guided” by a higher being. Will Wright certainly does not want to fight such battles. He asserts in his presentations about the game that, although he hopes people will learn something about human origins, Spore is not an ideological vehicle, and it is not meant to actively support or criticize religious or political views. Yet the game will make an impact through its mere presence as the kind of educational tool which can make comprehensible–and enjoyable–a theory currently hampered by popular misunderstandings. Even if Spore is meant to be harmless, it will surely have an impact on our culture, assuming it turns out to be a good game and sells as well as SimCity did. And if the game does become popular, the reaction of the conservative creationist movement will grow louder. First reactionaries like Dobson will issue their blind rants; then more subtle ideologues will begin to gleefully point out the fact that Spore is an intelligent design game.

Unfortunately, there are problems with characterizing Spore as a case of “playing God.” If it is an “intelligent design game,” it is a very strange one: a game in which human beings are unlikely to appear, and one which makes no attempt to depict the initial creation of life. Spore begins after abiogenesis, meaning that the “creator” is never really shown creating anything, just altering it. The ending of the game does not fit creationist theory, either: in fact, there is no ending. Because play is open-ended, there are no goals to reach, no “purpose” for your species to fulfill, and no apocalypses or days of judgment. Another reason that Spore cannot be called a creationist game is that the player–the intelligent designer–is placed in charge of only one planet out of billions. When your creatures are ready to colonize Mars, you may find that it is already full of little green people, or misshapen reptiles, or anything in between. The other creatures on Mars–and across the universe–were designed by other people playing the game, meaning they will ideally present gamers with both surprises and new challenges. But what kind of intelligent design simulation allows all the other planets to be controlled by different designers?

It would probably be best if Spore managed to evade such partisan philosophizing, and if gamers and political commentators alike would agree that it is just a video game. We could all be spared a great deal of bickering over the immorality of allowing kids to simulate evolution in their own homes, and instead we could focus our attention on the question of whether Spore is actually worth buying, which will be answered with its release in September. But if we try to wish away the game’s potential for controversy, we will be ignoring the point: roughly half of Americans think that all the species on Earth were created in the exact same state in which they appear today by a specific Christian God, and that no evolution has ever taken place. A sizeable portion of the population adds two more beliefs which stretch plausibility even further: that all these species were created just six thousand years ago, and that fossils of extinct species are fakes planted by God to test our faith.

pore is, intentionally or not, directly opposed to these superstitions in its forceful devotion to the principles of science and evolutionary biology. Furthermore, it is designed to appeal to the largest crowd possible, much like its predecessor, The Sims: the best-selling video game of all time. If sales of Spore are anything like those of Will Wright’s previous games, tens of millions of people will be playing an evolution simulator by the end of the year. Charles Darwin will be a new, if unlikely, influence on American pop culture, and his celebrated game engine will become familiar to a new generation which may have never understood or cared about it otherwise.

Thus Spore, with its harmless intentions of fun and games, may be a godsend for proponents of evolution. Will Wright’s latest creation may not have been designed as a weapon for the war between modern biology and its opponents–and it certainly is not a political statement–but if the game is as well-constructed and fun to play as previews suggest, it could be one of the greatest public-relations victories in the history of science. Perhaps a quick round of SimDarwin will do for America what decades of dull science textbooks could not.

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