The Creation Simulation

Feature / by Margaret Robertson /

Why does a blockbuster video game that embraces biological evolution resemble intelligent design?

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Imagine a picture of a man sitting, on a sunny day, picnicking on a blanket. Now zoom out tenfold, to see the park he’s sitting in. Then tenfold again, and again and again, till you can see the whole country, the whole planet, the whole solar system, the whole galaxy, a whole host of galaxies. Now imagine one last zoom, which pulls back to reveal that we’re looking not at the universe, but at a computer screen. Welcome to Spore, one of the most ambitious and anticipated video games of all time.

Will Wright isn’t an old man — his 24-year career as a game designer has so far produced the bestselling PC series of all time, The Sims, alongside many other much-loved projects — but it’s no great risk to say Spore is his magnum opus. It’s moved on from its original title of “SimEverything,” but that remains the snappiest way to describe it. It’s a universe in a box: a playful, unpredictable dynamic representation of everything we are, everything we were, and everything we might become.
The science in Spore can be seen as the offspring of two seminal ideas: Powers of Ten, a 1977 documentary film by Ray and Charles Eames that first showed viewers the zooming perspective of the universe described above, and the Drake Equation, a controversial attempt by the astrobiologist Frank Drake to quantify the prevalence of intelligence in our galaxy. “If you look at the terms of his equation,” begins Wright, “he’s trying to estimate how many intelligences there are out there — how many stars times how many planets times what proportion of those might have life, times what proportion of those might become intelligent — but those terms end up spanning all these different scales, from physics to chemistry and biology, all the way up to what we know as sociology and culture. So in some ways, Drake’s equation is a really interesting spine along which to attach all the other sciences.”

Spore, then, was conceived as the ultimate science project —  a laboratory in which a player could experiment with the parameters that determine the emergence of intelligent life. You’re given a star system that can support life, and you first meet your creature as one blob among millions in the primordial soup. You tend to it as it eats and breeds, judiciously tweaking its DNA to give it the advantage over its competitors. As it drags itself onto land, you shape its form, adding legs, teeth, tails, and claws. When population density builds up, you manage group dynamics, governing the culture that starts to emerge as intelligence develops. Then, as cities are built, wars are fought, and resources depleted, you help construct a successful space program. Travelling to new planets and solar systems gives you the chance to spread life elsewhere, seeking to find or recreate on other worlds the same hospitable conditions which your own species benefited from all those generations ago.

Tackling these vast ideas meant the Spore team had to start by doing its homework. Wright handpicked team members with a natural enthusiasm for science, then had them read books by science luminaries like Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson. For years this tight-knit team developed an entirely new universe. “We spent a fair amount of time prototyping galactic dynamics and the way galactic arms are formed,” recalls Wright, “and at the other end of the scale, we did a lot of prototyping around the origin of life — around auto-catalytic sets which were fun if you’re a chemistry geek, but if you weren’t into chemistry were totally obtuse.”

This was Spore‘s central problem: Could the game be both scientifically accurate and fun? The prototyping teams were becoming lost in their scientific interests. Chaim Gingold, a team member who started as an intern and went on to help design the game’s content creation tools, recalls a summer spent playing with pattern language and cellular automata: “It was just about being engaged with the universe as a set of systems, and being able to build toys that manifested our fascination with these systems and our love for them.” But from within this explosion of experimental enthusiasm came an unexpected warning voice. Spore‘s resident uber-geek and artificial intelligence expert Chris Hecker was having strong misgivings about how appealing all this hard science would be to the wider world. “I was the founding member of the ‘cute’ team,” he says with pride. “Ocean [Quigley, Spore‘s art director] and Will were really the founding members of the ‘science’ team. Ocean would make the cell game look exactly like a petri dish with all these to-scale animals and Will would say, ‘That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!’ and some of us were thinking, ‘I’m not sure about that.’”

Soon rival camps had formed. New recruits were taken out to lunch and covertly probed to discover where their natural leanings were. Quigley’s microscopically accurate concept drawings were vandalized with stuck-on googly eyes; there were suggestions that it might be cool if the creatures wore sneakers. It might have been painful for the founding members of the science team, but Quigley acknowledges the need for compromise. “From a single-celled organism through the four-and-a-half-billion year history of life on Earth to a self-projected future where we are gallivanting around the stars? I mean, it is so absurdly vast, so radically outside of any scale that people can really empathize with, we knew we had to turn it into a toy.”

This challenge — of making hard science approachable — is one that similarly inspired games have faced since the earliest implementations in 1970 of John Conway’s genre-defining Game of Life, but not all designers found Spore‘s compromises necessary. Steve Grand, who made the big sim-life hit of the 1990s, Creatures, also faced the task of reconciling the limited behavioral range of virtual life-forms with the advanced expectations of players. “There are two ways to tackle this problem,” Grand says. “Try to make the behavior look more real, or stop lying to people. As far as I can tell, Spore takes the former approach, to gently and quite openly fool the user into thinking she’s engaging with real living things, while Creatures took the latter — I did my best not to fool anyone, even if that meant the results weren’t so playable.”
Spore‘s decision — to preserve the illusion of life at the expense of the actual facts of life — made for some substantial casualties. First to go in the cute-versus-science war were the extreme ends of the scale — galaxy formation and originsof- life simulation — dismissed as being too abstract and dissipated. Next, small and then big laws were shattered and remade. Wright’s determination to represent faster-than-light travel as impossible crumbled in the face of making the spacefaring section of the game enjoyable. Evolution, despite his staunch Darwinism, became a massively telescoped process that depended on the external, deliberate interventions of the players. And so, instead of becoming the ultimate science project, Spore gradually became the ultimate game.

The snag is that Spore didn’t just jettison half its science — it replaced it with systems and ideas that run the risk of being actively misleading. Scientists brought in to evaluate the game for potential education projects recoiled as it became increasingly evident that the game broke many more scientific laws than it obeyed. Those unwilling to comment publicly speak privately of grave concerns about a game which seems to further the idea of intelligent design under the badge of science, and they bristle at its willingness to use words like “evolution” and “mutation” in entirely misleading ways.
Interestingly, though, it may be the concessions made to the cute camp that best protect Spore against accusations of being scientifically inaccurate. The tiny planets and multilimbed creatures give out a very strong message that this isn’t quite our world, so why should it be playing by our rules? For Grand, this differentiation was a core part of what made his Creatures valuable. “Their genes are not like our genes; their brains are not like our brains; but the principles are similar and so, like the abstraction of chess, they provide good models for understanding the real thing.”

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