Game designer Will Wright has never been one for half measures. Wright's first hit, SimCity, released in 1989, set out to model the complexities of urban planning. Two decades later, he's moved on to a grander project. Wright's latest endeavor, Spore, tackles nothing less than life itself. You start with a single cell. Play long enough, and you'll evolve into an entire spacefaring society.
Transforming a blob of protozoa into a flock of Yuri Gagarins feels like a duty reserved for the almighty or, perhaps, epochal time. But it's nothing new for Wright. In the early 1990s, he released SimEarth and SimLife, precursors to Spore that covered similar ontological ground, putting the user in charge of developing life and planets. And then there was The Sims, the best-selling computer game franchise of all time, a virtual dollhouse that let you control the daily activities of cyberhumans. Wright has a knack for turning complex stuff into easily digestible entertainment. His new game, however, traffics in subjects most universities have multiple Ph.D. departments studying. By taking on evolution—and, by default, intelligent design—Spore wades into a roiling ecosystem.
So what happens when something as complex as human interaction or evolution gets reduced to mouse clicks? Naturally, distilling real life into a video game requires some simplifications. Wright, both by design and by necessity, takes artistic license with the intricate systems he models. His unique aesthetic sense has made him wildly successful. At the same time, it's turned several of his games into a battlefield for banner-waving geeks who are perpetually at loggerheads over the artist's agenda.
Take SimCity, in which players engage in municipal tasks such as zoning property, laying out power grids and streets, building police stations, and managing transportation. There's no city council or finicky court system. You play mayor, urban planner, and puppet master all at once—Rudy Giuliani's executive utopia.
While most SimCity addicts were busy building cities and then destroying them via earthquake, wonkier types were puzzling over the game's rules and value system. In a 1994 article in the American Prospect, Paul Starr referred to SimCity's "hidden curriculum." He noted that success required players to build cities on an industrial base, and he criticized the game's bias against mixed-use development. Private land values were pegged to the public budget, and the city's health depended on zoning and allocation of resources, which determined tax receipts. The underlying structure of the game was, in the words of Wright himself, a "capitalistic land value ecology."
Other critics questioned the absence of race, pointing out that simulating urban decay without taking ethnicity into account was unrealistic, if not manipulative. And then there were taxes. Raise them enough, and your citizens would riot. Every kid who played SimCity absorbed the underlying message: Taxes are dangerous. This was Milton Friedman in code. Still, it wasn't enough to satisfy conservatives. They said the game punished players for buying nuclear power plants while rewarding them for building mass transit. They grumbled that the game ignored the private market and depicted the state as the sole engine for urban growth. (For what it's worth, in the last year Wright has donated nearly $100,000 to Republican political causes. He backed Giuliani for president. He now supports McCain.)
The Sims, which came out in 2000, steered clear of policy issues. It did, however, raise questions about how to boil human behavior down to bytes. By the time The Sims 2 rolled out, the game's virtual inhabitants, who had different genetic backgrounds, could breed. This added heredity to the mix, and players learned to modify racial makeup and DNA. Some users even conducted studies in population genetics inside the game, tracking recessive and dominant alleles over generations.