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.

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.

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.

Once the evolution stages end, Spore morphs into a traditional and less-innovative strategy game. You form a tribe, then evolve into a civilization with a military, economic, or religious culture. I managed to go religious by doing exactly what the religious nuts in America do not: eating lots of veggies and playing nice with my neighbors. When I eventually founded a city, I flooded the planet with religious propaganda to forcibly convert the unwashed heathens beyond my walls. This element of the game has angered atheists. I can't imagine that it's going to make evangelicals too happy, either.

So it goes with Wright. He admits Spore is a game that deals with intelligent design. He acknowledges the religious component. But he takes pains to point out that it's a caricature of reality, like all his games. The final stage of Spore has you scooting around in a spaceship, exploring a universe populated with user-created content. That's maybe not so realistic, but it is enjoyable. It's important to remember that building a game based strictly on evolutionary principles would be a disaster. How would you play it? Perhaps you'd just end up watching a lab computer churning data.

What people see as agendas in Spore and The Sims and SimCity may merely be artifacts of what's required to turn a simulation into a game. An early prototype of Spore included mutations, but Wright said it wasn't engaging—users needed to make those tweaks. "When we put the players in the role of intelligent designer then people were much more emotionally attached to what they made," he says.

Ultimately, games are made to engage the people who play them. Provoking wonderment or debate is a good thing. Wright abstracts grandiose topics, and he does it well. Not enough game designers have the stones or the vision to try the same, which is why we get battered with endless versions of Madden NFL (also put out by Electronic Arts). In the end, that's also why Spore leaves such an impression. It's more than just fun. It's worth arguing about.

Luke O’Brien is a writer in Washington, D.C.