Spore: When Games and Science Collide

By Carl Zimmer | September 1, 2008 10:58 pm

guilfordus.jpgBehold Guilfordus horribilus, and shudder all thee ye who cross its path…

At some point in the distant past, I became aware of a very cool-sounding game in the works. It was called Spore, and it was the creation of Will Wright, who first came to my attention long ago with SimCity, an addictive game that let you build and run a toy city. There was no prize for your reward, no cheesy trumpet music of victory–just the quiet satisfaction of overseeing a thriving metropolis, or watching it collapse as you unleash Godzilla and falling meteorites on its fair streets. What was most interesting, at least to me, was that good intentions did not get you very far. A plan that seemed to make eminent sense could turn out to be a disaster in the most unexpected ways. It was a good lesson in nonlinear dynamics.

Spore was even more ambitious–Wright promised to turn billions of years of evolution from single-celled creatures to intergalactic civilizations into a game. It also generated an awesome frenzy of anticipation, with articles in Wired and the New Yorker appearing years–years–before the game would finally be released (this coming Friday).I was intrigued, but a little skeptical. Some of the press touted it as an evolution game, even though it didn’t sound much like what evolution was really about. But given that Wright is the creator of the biggest-selling video game ever (the Sims), I figured this was a cultural moment worth writing about.

So I asked for a copy of Spore to play around with–and Guilfordus horribilus (named after my dear town) is evidence of several hours of studious research I spent killing little helpless creatures and singing songs to build up a pack to kill bigger helpless creatures. I also arranged for a couple evolutionary biologists to play around with it, in order to see what their experience would be like.

The surprising results are here, in the lead story of  tomorrow’s Science Times section of the New York Times.[Note: Thanks to Simea in the comments for correcting me in two languages.]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (10)

  1. simea mirans

    The creature is cool, and Spore sounds like fun, but … mangling Middle English AND Latin grammar in the same post? It’s “all ye”, not “all thee”; and it’s “horribilis”, not “horriblus”. Srsly.

  2. JohnK

    I don’t know anything about spore or current evolution-simulation games, but I remember a very simple mac game that came with “The Blind Watchmaker” and, I think, was written by Dawkins. The idea was to show how selection (user selection, not natural selection), over generations, could cause remarkable changes. There were a handful of “genes” that the user could alter, generation by generation.

    The one big lesson it taught me was that genes that control development can have far reaching effects, and are the genes that affect body-systems. I think half of the genes in this game were development-regulators. I’m looking forward to spore and hopeful of new personal insights. Also, some fun.

    Thanks, Carl.

  3. Geoff

    So it’s pretty much Intelligent Design: the Game. Whether they intended that or not.

  4. johne

    The “El juego <>…” comment above links to a web page whose Spanish title can be translated as “A Christian Focus on Science.” It describes the game as one that co-opts intelligent design but calls it evolution, the whole enterprise amounting to a big lie intended to deceive and seduce the unwary into (it is implied) the Darwinist trap.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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