Is Will Wright's new game, Spore, about evolution or intelligent design?

The art of play.
Sept. 11 2008 5:36 PM

Spore's Intelligent Designer

Will Wright's new hit game is all about evolution. Or is it?

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The Feds Have Declared War on Encryption—and the New Privacy Measures From Apple and Google

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You

It spreads slowly.

These “Dark” Lego Masterpieces Are Delightful and Evocative

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Activists Are Trying to Save an Iranian Woman Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?