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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Spore and Evolution

Spore is a computer game that let's you "evolve" organisms beginning with a simple cell and moving "upwards" to creatures that can build spaceships. The game is designed by Will Wright whose previous credits include SimCity and The Sims.

Wright and his company have been heavily promoting the game as a way of learning about evolution. As part of this promotion they have distributed free copies to many scientists in advance of the opening day of sales in retail stores. Here's how it's described on the Spore Website.
How will you create the universe?

With Spore you can nurture your creature through five stages of evolution: Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization, and Space. Or if you prefer, spend as much time as you like making creatures, vehicles, buildings and spaceships with Spore’s unique Creator tools.

CREATE Your Universe from Microscopic to Macrocosmic - From tide pool amoebas to thriving civilizations to intergalactic starships, everything is in your hands.

EVOLVE Your Creature through Five Stages - It’s survival of the funnest as your choices reverberate through generations and ultimately decide the fate of your civilization.
Time for a reality check. Spore is a computer game. It's purpose is to make bundles of money for Will Wright and his company. It may be an excellent game but it is NOT a way of learning about evolution. Evolution does not have a purpose or a direction.

Carl Zimmer has just published an article in The New York Times about Spore and computer simulations [Gaming Evolves]. Some scientists don't think the game reflects evolution.
Unlike the typical shoot-them-till-they’re-all-dead video game, Spore was strongly influenced by science, and in particular by evolutionary biology. Mr. Wright will appear in a documentary next Tuesday on the National Geographic Channel, sharing his new game with leading evolutionary biologists and talking with them about the evolution of complex life.

Evolutionary biologists like Dr. Near and Dr. Prum, who have had a chance to try the game, like it a great deal. But they also have some serious reservations. The step-by-step process by which Spore’s creatures change does not have much to do with real evolution. “The mechanism is severely messed up,” Dr. Prum said.

Nevertheless, Dr. Prum admires the way Spore touches on some of the big questions that evolutionary biologists ask. What is the origin of complexity? How contingent is evolution on flukes and quirks? “If it compels people to ask these questions, that would be great,” he said.
The object of the game is to "evolve" advanced creatures that the player "designs." What are the chances that the average player is going to appreciate the roles of contingency, and quirks? Probably so close to zero that it's not worth discussing.

I have a problem when we talk about games like Spore and real evolution in the same breath. I have a problem when someone like Will Wright is promoted on the National Geographic TV channel. The press release from National Geographic sounds ominous ..
(WASHINGTON, D.C. — AUGUST 21, 2008) In the newest creation from Electronic Arts Inc. (EA) and video game pioneer and "The Sims" mastermind Will Wright, Spore™ enables players to design a virtual galaxy of new life, such as a one-eyed web-footed creature with a snout, and then control their species' evolution. But how much real-world science is behind this groundbreaking new game? And what genetic connections do people share with a universe of strange organisms?

On Tuesday, Sept. 9, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT, National Geographic Channel (NGC) presents the premiere of How to Build a Better Being, the companion documentary to the highly anticipated new video game Spore, which will be released nationally on Sunday, Sept. 7. The show, which is also included in the limited run of the collectable "Spore Galactic Edition," joins Wright and leading scientists in exploring the genetic information we share with all animals — even creatures we could never have envisioned. From prehistoric fish with wrists to 8-ton elephants with trunks, get powerful new insight into the origin of species and how our prized parts came to be. Then see how evolutionary creature-making is translated into a brave new world of gaming.

"What are the things that evolution has at its disposal to define a creature, to mix and match the parts, and eventually come up with a unique organism that's going to live its life and try to reproduce?" — Will Wright, gaming innovator
Some would argue that anything that promotes evolution is a step in the right direction. It's a valid point.

But why can't we have our cake and eat it too? Why can't we promote evolution but do it in a scientifically accurate manner? It's abundantly clear to all scientists that the general public knows little about evolution and what little they know is mostly wrong. Do we have to cater to those false impressions?

What effect is it going to have in the long run if we misrepresent science by pretending that evolution is progressive and ladder-like and leads eventually to us—or at least leads to intelligent animals? Is anyone else concerned about this?

The video clip below doesn't mention Spore. It looks like the same old evo-devo emphasis on semi-conserved regulatory genes and regulation of animal development as keys to understanding how humans evolved.

The Spore advertisement exploits the National Geographic connection.


Sparky said...

You just reminded me of this comic, which the Spore creators liked so much they produced an enhanced version.

More seriously, I agree that Spore isn't likely to teach anything about actual evolution. Processes that require no conscious direction produce pretty good realities, but they make lousy game mechanics. It's more fun to play a game about intelligent design or godhood, and that seems to be a much more appropriate description of Spore and many of Wright's earlier Sims games.

Mario Pineda-Krch said...

FYI - Will Wright has a TED talk about Spore.

Anonymous said...

I think it's great, if it promotes some of the basic ideas in evolution (replication, mutation, recombination, selection, etc) in a fun way. If users are interested, they can research other complex details later on.

And who says that biological life has a monopoly on Darwinian evolution anyway? It could also happen in software or some kind of artificial nanotechnology substrate - possibly differing significantly from biological evolution in many details.

Unknown said...

To be fair, I remember Will Wright specifically calling it 'teleological' evolution in one of the early interviews about the game (maybe in that TED talk).

Anonymous said...

To be fair to Will Wright, he was part of the game "SimLife", back in '92. While SimLife lets the player directly tamper with the genetics of plants/animals, once you've done that, you let them loose and see how they fare.

I have to admit, I've been sort of... uncomfortable about Spore and "evolution". As a gamer, I'm excited about Spore. As someone who is constantly coming up against people who misunderstand evolution, it worries me. It's just further media reinforcement of "evolution is guided / designed / has a goal" misconceptions. It may confuse the issue in some people's minds.

But on the other hand, you said it yourself... Spore is a computer game. It's designed to entertain, not educate. A video game based around scientifically accurate evolution would basically require no input, and would be very boring to play.

In the end, I agree with Dr. Prum's sentiment... Hopefully the game will generate some interest in evolution and get people to read up on it. If nothing else, it may help people to see that "macro" evolution can come from accumulated "micro" evolution (hate those terms, sorry).

But as I said, it's a computer game. It's under no obligation to educate people on the specifics of evolution, just as the Age of Empires series isn't obligated to recreate historical periods with great accuracy.

The Key Question said...

"What effect is it going to have in the long run if we misrepresent science by pretending that evolution is progressive and ladder-like and leads eventually to us—or at least leads to intelligent animals? Is anyone else concerned about this?"

I'm all for accurate representation of evolution but as MWC and Anon 8:11 have pointed out, this is a game with the main purpose of entertainment.

Besides I can't think of a more eloquent refutation of "intelligent" design or "teleology" than a greasy teenager getting hooked on a computer game in the basement of his parent's house.

Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

I was hoping to be able to play Spore, because I love all the Sim games, but it doesn't run on dinky little Macbooks.
I don't think anyone would use it as a serious tool for learning evolution. There are currently so many video games out there that misrepresent physics, it's just one of the first times that it happens with biology. Although, Pokemon uses a similar type of evolution as Spore does, but because it doesn't have the whole "beginning of time" plot that Spore has it's not thought of as much of a risk to teaching evolution. Still, there are many ten year olds out there who first heard the word "evolution" with regards to changing Pokemon

Unknown said...

I found this entry through google, while looking to see if there was any backlash yet...

No, the prupose isn't education. But, a game like spore has the chance to make thinking about evolution more accessible. The reality is, there are still huge numbers of people who think everything in the world is exactly the same as it was created 6,000 years ago. And, even those who don't believe that have so little understanding of evolution. This game has the chance to introduce the ideas of change (especially in a design platform, which will be more friendly) to people who don't comprehend it at all.

No, this game isn't going to impart college-level knowledge of biological evolution, but even a elementary-school level of biological evolution would help immeasurably with this pre-school "i ain't no monkey" bullshit.