I finished the Game On review of Spore just a few days ago, which was a bear to write - not just because of Spore's complexity, but the loads of content I struggled to cram into Game On’s 600-word limit. I didn’t realize I had so much to say about Spore… then I started typing, veering off into every tangentially related topic and ending up with a first draft 500 words too long. Oops.
Some cuts were easy: my 150+ words on Wright’s previous effort, The Sims, was an obvious item to scrap. But other parts hung on until the bitter end, because they seemed relevant to me… until finally the deadline just couldn’t be pushed any later and I forced myself to hack away. Those lingering, discarded scraps sat on my clipboard and grew into this column: critiques Spore from an evolutionary biology perspective.
(Oh, and for the record: Terms like Darwinist or evolutionist are often used by creationists with a pejorative connotation, the "-ism" part of the word suggesting evolution is an unsubstantiated belief system. I'm not suggesting that meaning at all; I just couldn't bear to look at the mouthful "An Evolutionary Biologist's Critique of Spore" as a headline. You understand.)
Click on through for science-geekerific musings!
Spore was heavily promoted as a game that simulated evolution, to me the game’s most intriguing promise. As a kid I was fascinated with the concept of evolution, mostly because of the (in retrospect appallingly racist) diagrams depicting small, chimp-like early hominids gradually morphing into tall, handsome Aryan-looking men, like some sort of weird simian lycanthropy in reverse. That planted the seed, and I’ve been fascinated by “descent with modification” (as Darwin described it) ever since, even picking a major in college that complimented that interest (anthropology).
As it turns out, there’s not a lot of evolution being simulated in Spore (ironically and much to my chagrin, it’s closer to a creationist sim). Not only do normal evolutionary pressures have no influence at all (competition for mates, for example, is totally absent), but players aren’t constrained in any way by a creature’s anatomy when choosing to “evolve” it; in fact, you can reinvent a creature mid-game, trading canines and armor plates for four pairs of wings and a beak in a single breeding cycle. Best of all, new anatomical features are gathered by gobbling them up off the ground – so if you think little Joey or Susie is going to dazzle the teachers at school with their advanced knowledge of natural selection thanks to playing lots of Spore, think again.
Admittedly, forcing players to modify a creature so it’s more attractive to potential mates would undermine Spore’s main goal: letting players build whatever creature they want. You can’t attract players with that promise and then force them to add more pretty feathers or learn a mating call to advance. But anatomical constraints faithful to how evolution actually takes place could be included and still make for an interesting game that doesn’t limit the player’s creativity.
So what would such a game look like? Actually, the Civilization series has a proven model that, to me, seems like a close-enough approximation of evolution: the way it handles technological advancements.
For those not familiar: the Civilization games allow you to customize your civilization’s technologies by picking areas of “research”. When you start the game, your options are appropriately low-tech: pottery, the wheel, hunting and so on. But mastering each opens technologies that are logical successions: for example, mastering hunting might lead to archery, or learning pottery can lead to writing (via cuneiform tablets). Two aspects of this system would work brilliantly in simulating the anatomical aspect of evolution:
1. You can’t just skip ahead and set your Stone Age tribe learning jet propulsion: each incremental piece of knowledge must be mastered first.
Using the example I gave earlier, it doesn’t make any sense that I can swap four limbs for twelve or fur for feathers in an evolutionary blink of an eye; in nature, even seemingly dramatic anatomical shifts (e.g., hoofed, wolf-like creatures evolving into whales) are mere reorganizations and repurposings of existing anatomy. So if I want a feathered flier, I need all the incremental pieces to achieve that – for example, the player would have to start with a creature that has scales, is bipedal, and probably a carnivore.
2. Each incremental step is an end in and of itself.
In the Civilization example, the player isn’t learning “Chariot 1”, Chariot 2” and then “Chariot 3” before being able to build a real chariot; instead he’s learning the wheel, animal husbandry, horseback riding, and iron working – everything that goes into realizing a chariot, but each also individually and immediately beneficial.
This goes to a common rhetorical question in evolution: “What’s the value in 5% of an eye?” – the point being that anatomical features or organs don’t evolve over generations as incremental steps towards a design. A proto-eye doesn’t say to itself “I’m not very useful now, but someday I’m going to be able to do some cool things.” A proto-eye isn’t a proto-eye at all; it’s an organ that serves a complete purpose on it’s own that just so happens to potentially be an incremental step towards a “full” eye.
So with the feathered flier example, all the incremental pieces would have to have a functional payoff – they can’t just be 5% of flight, they have to be 100% of a function. Scales could give a player’s creature a bonus in terms of protection, and bipedalism could come with a variety of bonuses, from agility to an increased effectiveness in collecting (or catching) food.
Handling evolution in the same way the Civilization games handle technological advancements – a system established almost 20 years ago – Spore could’ve actually retained all the game’s player customization and actually come a lot closer to achieving the marketing pitch of being an evolution sim. Plus it’d give EA a new bulletpoint: kids playing Spore would actually be exploring real scientific principles, not just Mad Libs with eye stalks and webbed feet. And best of all, it’d make this particular science geek appreciate the game a whole lot more. (Something I’m sure EA and Will Wright deeply give a shit about. Ahem.)
Of course, doing it the way I’ve described would entail ripping off another game’s ideas. But I can’t imagine that would be a problem, since Spore’s ripping off so many others already (zing!).