The Creation Simulation

Feature / by Margaret Robertson /

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

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Wright too believes strongly that to get bogged down in specific factual errors is to miss Spore‘s broader potential to teach scientific principles — to communicate concepts like the very small and the very slow. “Since you’re actually travelling through the evolution of this organism from very simple to very complex and intelligent, the meta-message here is that life evolves,” he maintains. It may sound like a convenient excuse from a designer who’s had to compromise his vision to meet a commercial agenda, but those experienced in how the public responds to portrayals of science back up Wright’s instincts. Stephen Webster, a science communications expert at Imperial College, London, answers unequivocally when asked if he feels Spore could further muddy waters already clouded with ignorance and misinformation: “No, I don’t, and I’ll tell you why. My experience of working with science and communication is that people separate quite clearly one domain of their life from another. These games work not because people think they’re teaching them science, but because you can do the manipulation… You can see the results from what you do.” It’s this latter element which may make Spore much more useful as an educational tool than its omissions and inventions might suggest. “No one feels involved in evolution,” says Webster. “It’s hard to imagine evolution, and it’s very hard to see, because of the lengths of time involved. When people talk about evolution happening in front of your nose, they’re usually talking about bacteria — it’s not something you can see.”

Intriguingly, however, the real common ground between Spore and Creatures — and indeed between them and many other computer games — may not be that they teach or visualize scientific fact, but that they teach scientific thinking itself. Progress in many games depends on a cycle of observation, theorizing, and experimentation, and Spore is no different. The whole game is a giant consequence generator, and scientists like Webster feel this is where much of Spore‘s value is to be found. “There’s a degree of reasoning. You’re trying to make changes that you think will affect the future — isolating factors, changing one thing, keeping others the same, and seeing what happens. This is often how science is described, and there is an element of the scientific method in all of that.”

And yet there is hard science in Spore, not in its distorted mirroring of our own natural world, but in the systems that emerged as the game itself evolved. Inspired by Wright’s love for the theory of panspermia, the notion that life can be “seeded” from space, each Spore galaxy is populated not by creatures designed by the game’s creative team, but by animals, plants, buildings, and vehicles made by players within the game’s extraordinarily flexible editing tools. These creations automatically pollinate from computer to computer, and in order to facilitate this spread, the team had to find a way to let the creations replicate themselves. They ended up with a system that echoes how novel traits emerge via natural selection. Each image of a creature contains, embedded in the file itself, the data for its recreation. And recreate they do —  when the creature creator tool was released to promote the game earlier this year it took just 18 days for players to match the 1.6 million species known on Earth, and they wasted no time comparing and trading their handiwork. Just as in the real world, environmental constraints started to determine which of these creatures are the fittest — which, in Spore‘s universe, means which are the most popular. For game designer Frank Lantz, it’s this evolving ecosystem that is the perfect example of the game’s ability to be science rather than teach science. Initially, it was living, bouncing models of the human reproductive organs that proved wildly popular — a trend quickly dubbed “Spornography.”

“If we’re talking about designed organisms, or even potentially designed universes, I can imagine it being in the realm of human aspiration. In fact, we’re starting right now.”

“Here’s a game — supposedly about evolution — in which sexual reproduction is tastefully absent,” says Lantz. “And then as soon as the editor comes out, there’s this enormous Cambrian Explosion, a Burgess Shale of digital erotica. And then those images were really good at reproducing themselves as players sent links and images around to each other. So, it turns out that sex is good at reproducing itself. How funny and ironic is that?”

This emerging ecology is the final part of Spore‘s scientific odyssey. The startling reality of Spore is that, while it sells itself as a laboratory in a box, the actual subjects of the experiment aren’t the virtual creatures, but the real players. As in previous Wright games, the team will be able to collect detailed data on what the players create, what they do, and how they play. Early trends are already emerging from prerelease testing — female players tend to prefer non-aggressive methods of conquest (often cultural competitions relying on singing and dancing displays), while male players are redder in tooth and claw — but once the game is released it will provide real insight into how people want to shape the world around them, and on how they relate to synthetic life-forms.
Wright sees this aspect of Spore as a key building block in the science of the future. “If you look at things like social intelligences, a lot of those are going to be dedicated to understanding the other social systems that surround them. And so, if you have an AI and it’s interacting with humans, a big part of its model is going to be about how humans behave. I think that the early models we’re building in these games will be the starting point for the models that computers will use to understand us. We’re already describing ourselves to what will become the future AI.”

It’s the potential Spore has to evolve over current and future incarnations into a massive dataset of billions of human interactions and decisions that may make the game a target for scientific research rather than a reflection of it. “I spend a lot of time observing The Sims community,” says Wright, “where we actually embed data in each saved game, so we can do data analysis of how people played their game… We’re going to be doing the same thing with Spore. We’re tracking the telemetry, as we call it, of what the players are doing in the game, and that’s amazing — that players are exploring, and we can actually build a computational map of the possibility space and statistically populate it with how players are spending their time.” It isn’t clear how much access Electronic Arts (EA), the game’s publisher, will give the world to this digital survey of human instinct, but it’s immediately apparent how valuable it could be as a raw input for any artificial system struggling to form an understanding of our priorities and preferences.

Unsurprisingly, for a man who set out to “Sim” everything, the potential for his game to turn the entire world into a laboratory isn’t quite enough to sate his ambition. Wright is clearly fascinated by the possibilities the further future holds, and for what Spore may end up telling us about humanity’s relationship with nature. “To go a bit further into the intelligent design issue,” he says, “I don’t reject it outright. I don’t think there’s any evidence on Earth indicating there was any designer involved here, but if we’re talking about it in the sense of the designers we might one day become, then I’m open to that. If we’re talking about designed organisms, or even potentially designed universes, I can almost imagine it being in the realm of human aspiration. Actually, we’re starting right now, when we’re custom designing organisms from scratch.”
In fact, it’s this line of thinking that may resolve the apparent tension behind Spore‘s scientific inspirations but unscientific implementation. This isn’t a game for re-educating the intelligent design proponents of the present; it’s a game for inspiring the intelligent designers of the future. Because, of course, if you zoom back one more level from Spore and the computer screen which hosts it, what do you see? Yourself.


Originally published September 8, 2008

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