Today is the European release date of Spore, the latest product of game guru Will Wright’s active imagination. Wright is the creator of incredibly successful titles such as SimCity, which allowed players to build and manage a city, and The Sims, which places you in charge of a virtual household and it’s occupants. The Sims series of games alone has sold over 100 million copies, so you might say they’re pretty popular.
Spore takes players in a new direction. Wright wanted to explore the ideas behind evolution and make gamers think about their effect on the world. In Spore, you begin life as a microscopic organism, fighting for your existences in a style reminiscent of Pac-Man. Succeed, and you can evolve into a land-based creature, that will eventually develop its own society and ultimately explore space and rule the galaxy.
It sounds pretty ambitious, and it is – the game was announced to the public in 2005, but has actually been in development for nearly eight years. Part of the problem in creating Spore was how to reflect the true nature of evolution, without having to wait for millions of years. The solution was to allow players to create their own creatures, using an intuitive “virtual clay” system, and then to modify them as the game goes along. You start off with a basic spine, which you can pull and stretch to any number of forms, and then add a variety of heads, limbs, and other appendages. Player created creatures are then uploaded to a central server and then downloaded into other players games, to create a diverse range of species for everyone to play with. It’s very easy to use – why not try it yourself?
I find Spore to be an extremely interesting form of science communication. On the one hand, creatures evolve up from a single celled organism, eventually becoming much larger creatures that can form a society – not too different from our own evolutionary history. On the other hand, because players are shaping the make up of their creatures at every step, rather than the game making modifications at random, Spore is actually an example of intelligent design. Of course, it would be hard to make the game work any other way – as mentioned above, no one wants to sit around for a few million years waiting for something to happen – but it does send a mixed message to players.
In the space phase of the game, Spore hits on another scientific controversy: climate change. Players can fly around the galaxy in a spaceship, contacting other species and terraforming planets. Adding water to a planet will introduce an atmosphere and clouds, where greenhouse gases can accumulate and cause the planet to heat up. Wright believes that by demonstrating such large changes in a short amount of time, players will find it much easier to grasp the concept of climate change, and how it can occur.
At the end of the day, many people will play Spore without thinking about the science behind the game. It’s not intended to be strictly educational, but Wright wanted to create an experience that would allow players to learn about scientific principles at the same time as having fun and telling their own stories. I’m interested to see if he succeeds.