Spore's Intelligent Designer
Will Wright's new hit game is all about evolution. Or is it?
The Sims, however, was never about modeling the descent of man or even human relationships. It focused mainly on the bureaucracy of life—the daily chores needed to keep your SimHuman from devolving into a slovenly, bankrupt outcast. But as usual with Wright's games, the approach didn't come without controversy. You don't make friends in The Sims—you acquire them. The more goods you amass, the more popular you become. The bigger the TV you stuff into your suburban palace, the happier you are.
"The constraints of consumer capitalism are built into the game's logic," wrote Ann McGuire, an Australian academic, echoing earlier complaints about the hypercapitalist SimCity. "The Sims distils and intensifies, through its underlying code, key ideological aspects of late capitalism: self, other, and time are all quantified and commodified. What the player is doing is shopping effectively in order to manage a life in the world."
It's hardly surprising, then, that Spore would be destined to provoke. Wright initially dubbed the game "SimEverything" because of the range of material it would cover. Months before the game came out, people started clucking on Internet forums. Would Spore take a scientific approach to evolution? Would it celebrate the tenets of intelligent design? Knowing Wright's history, it's no surprise that the answer is yes on both counts. It just depends whom you ask.
In Spore, players guide life through five different stages. Only the first two deal with evolution. You start as a cell, swimming around in a nutrient swamp, gobbling nourishment. The decisions you make from the start—whether to eat meat or plants or both, for example—set the course for your early development. As you progress, you earn "DNA points," opening up palettes of biological tweaks. Flagella help you swim faster. Spikes offer protection. That's evolution. But it's also where some people may see a divine hand. As the deity in this god game, your choices influence the game's outcome.
Some pro-I.D. groups have already targeted Spore as a possible educational vehicle. "It raises a lot of the questions we've been thinking about," Casey Luskin of the Intelligent Design Evolution and Awareness Center told me three months ago. "It has interesting pro-I.D. implications. ... I know of at least two video-game developers affiliated with this who are pro-I.D." Luskin wouldn't tell me who those developers were, but he did recently weigh in on the Discovery Institute's blog to list five reasons why Spore will destroy common objections to intelligent design. His conclusion: "Spore is a video game that is intelligently designed to allow users to create fantasy worlds where evolution really can take place." (If a game that lets you play god is intelligently designed, does that make Will Wright some kind of deity? Could he be Auðumbla, the icy cow of Norse legend that spawned the first gods by licking hoar frost?)
Spore's I.D. themes become more noticeable when you move onto land and into the "creature stage." Your goal here is to attain sentience. Your brain grows as you progress, interacting with other species through socialization, predation, or both. Particular behaviors put you on a path that opens up certain body parts. The range of options in the "creature creator" allows for an enormous variety of life—not as much as in nature, but a nice approximation. As it happens, intelligent design is good fun: You can spend hours with your critters, arranging spinal columns, attaching wings, and painting on polka dots. Or you can marvel at what other intelligent designers have dreamed up. Electronic Arts released the creature creator in June, and people have already cooked up millions of species, some elaborate and others obscene. (EA uploads your creations to servers and downloads other users' content into your world.)
At the same time, it's clear that Wright researched evolution. He appeared in a National Geographic Channel documentary called How To Build a Better Being, talking Darwin with evolutionary biologists and poring over fossils with paleontologists. He also consulted scientists who seem delighted, if mildly concerned, that their complex work is being simplified so dramatically. "Playing the game, you can't help but feel amazed how, from a few simple rules and instructions, you can get a complex functioning world with bodies, behaviors, and whole ecosystems," said Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago. Just as Casey Luskin thinks Spore could get people excited about intelligent design, some biologists think the game could have educational value just by making users think about science, like an entertaining hook into evolutionary biology.
But the science in the game is wafer thin. Despite some overenthusiastic prognostications in reviews—"Spore could be the greatest gaming tool ever created to disseminate Darwinistic ideas," says one critic—the game makes no room for random mutation, the real source of differentiation. And natural selection plays only a minor role. If you don't bless your beast with a mouth or hands, you won't fare well. Almost anything else goes. At one point, my creature's legs and arms were connected by useless and mechanically impossible minilimbs. I did just fine. In Darwin's world, I would have been a snack for a more efficient predator.
Luke O’Brien is a writer at Deadspin.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.