Thursday, October 9, 2008

Science in Spore

Remember the computer game Spore, which simulated the history of a species, from a tiny cell to a sentient, space-faring civilization? Of course you do. It was just released last month. So here's the deal: I'm going to briefly discuss how Spore treats evolution, science, and all the other things that skeptical evolutionists care about. Some people might complain, "It's just a game. Why do you care so much about whether the game universe realistically portrays the real universe?" To this I respond, "It's just a blog. Of course I don't think a game should be judged for how realistic it is! This is just my excuse to talk about science and pop culture."

Spore begins by completely avoiding the question of how life formed. Instead, a meteorite falls into a planet's ocean, opens up, letting the first life form out. I gotta say, panspermia is way cool. Anyways, this first life form starts out with eyes, a mouth, bilateral symmetry, and a spine, and you instantly find yourself in a 2-d environment populated predators and prey/food. It all seems very vertebrate-centric, skipping all previous evolution and ignoring alternate paths. I guess that's because single-celled organisms are ugly and boring gameplay elements. I mean, there was a cool game in The Time Warp of Dr. Brain called "Primordial Soup", but I digress. In Spore, your creature evolves in leaps and bounds, as a mere representation of the real process. Every time you mate (G-rated mating, naturally), you're given the choice to change around the morphology of your creature. You know, add a spiky thing here, an electric protrusion there, like legos!

Two problems: The overly progressionistic portrayal of evolution is not exactly right, but then what kind of game would it be where you didn't progress? You might also protest, "Isn't this more like Intelligent Design than evolution?" Yes, but it would be kind of boring if you didn't get to decide how your creature would evolve, wouldn't it? Well, natural selection simulators like this one or that one are Fun Times, but again I digress. Point is, a natural selection simulator would be a whole different game, not Spore at all.

Eventually, after about half an hour real-time or several billion years game-time, your creature progresses to where it can evolve legs and walk on land. In one of the game's more realistic moments, all of your creature's old body parts gain different functions on land. That electric protrusion? It doesn't work on land, so now it's used to give your creature the ability to "charm". This happens all the time in evolution, so I think it's sweet that they had it in the game. That is, the changing of functions is sweet, not the "charm" thing. I have no idea what the "charm" action corresponds to in the real world (it is used to charm other species, not your mate).

On land, evolution continues representationally. However! Now, not only can we forget about natural selection of any kind, we also no longer have any sort of emergent fitness. In the 2-d water environment, placing the spiky thing on the front would make you more offensive, while placing it in the back would allow it to poke pursuants. On land, it doesn't really matter where you put your spiky things, as long as they're somewhere on your creature. For example, if you've got a spur-shaped appendage, it doesn't make a difference whether you place it on your arms, where it might be handy, or if you place it on your back, where its use appears impossible. Apparently, early in the Spore's game design, they intended to have fitness emerge from the morphology of the creature, but they just couldn't pull it off. Play-testers felt that their creativity was limited by this mysterious formula which determined speed and other fitness. Eventually, they decided that the player should be able to design their creature in whatever way most pleases them, with relatively little effect on fitness (source: this interview). That's too bad, because emergent fitness is a very fascinating gameplay element (also more realistic, and necessary for evolution, if anyone cares to know). But who are we to question the omniscient game designers? They are gods' gods.

One of the elements in the game is a sort of sliding scale between a more social species and a more aggressive species. You can move back and forth between the two strategies, and your decisions will show up on this cool timeline of your species' history. At first, this is affected by whether you eat plants or meat. Later, it depends on whether you befriend other creatures or if you attack them. Even later, when your species starts a civilization, you can choose between a religious, economic, or military strategy. Supposedly, this made some "militant atheists" angry, but I'm not sure I believe in the existence of such people. I played once as a religious civilization, and I thought it was hilarious. A militaristic civilization attacks and conquers other cities. An economic civilization buys out other cities. A religious civilization creates giant holograms above the city to convert them. They also shoot conversion rays. They are colorful and musical?

On the subject of religion, when your species becomes a space-faring civilization, it gains a unique identity based on its entire history. You can become a Zealot, a sort of militaristic/religious combo, or a Shaman, a more mellow sort of religious civilization. Or you could be come a Diplomat, Ecologist, Scientist, Trader, Warrior, etc. They're like the different races in Star Trek. When you meet other races who are zealots, they're pretty funny because they justify everything by saying that Spode told them to. Scientists are also caricatured (silly scientists, always trying to justify their actions with logic).

And yes, you get to meet lots of other species in space. You get to control a UFO (complete with a SETI jammer) and abduct them and everything. Yes, Spore has a very optimistic estimate of the number of intelligent life-forms. Practically every star has 1 to 5 planets, and most of them are occupied by alien empires. This is understandable, because in a game, Mars is not nearly as cool as Martians. If you're wondering how they resolve the Fermi paradox ("If there are so many aliens out there, why haven't I met any?"), they don't. Why, when I was a mere brainless gecko, I saw a UFO abduct one of the rival species.

These species, by the way, have been created by other players, but have been downloaded into your computer. That's Spore's entire gimmick, by the way: everything you create can show up in someone's game somewhere on the net. You have an entire galaxy populated by these creations, and boy is the galaxy big! It's not nearly as big as the real galaxy, but it's big enough that it has a real wow-factor. You can explore and see all kinds of stars. Or you can terraform or destroy planets. Or you can place monoliths to speed up the progression of the native species. Obviously, the game borrows as much from sci-fi as it does from actual science. But who cares, if it's fun?

As for whether the game is fun... I did not write this to be an actual review of the game, but I obviously like dispensing my opinions. So if you want my opinion, the game is pretty disappointing for something that was in development for so long (8 years). Much of the gameplay is shallow or frustrating. I believe the official excuse is that the game is meant to focus on creativity and sharing--the player designs creatures, buildings, vehicles, UFOs, etc. and they are all displayed on the web. Well, it is fun to design stuff, but can I not also have well-designed gameplay? I guess that means that the game is not "for" me, it's for the casual gamer constituency (insert obligatory flame war here). I also thought it was really disappointing that the game has neither natural selection nor emergent fitness, not because they're realistic, but because they would have been fun. But despite the disappointments and the apparent design flaws, I'm still playing it, so it isn't all bad.