There's been much talk about Will Wright's latest, the long-awaited Spore: The social interaction fostered by the in-game roster of player-created creatures. The culmination of ideas set forth in his previous efforts, SimCity and The Sims. The sheer vastness of the game world (and of the title's reported $50 million development budget).
But perhaps the most interesting commentaries set forth by the game, which finally was released on Sunday, focus on how Spore engages the theory of evolution. In fact, in an oblique way, Spore could be the greatest gaming tool ever created to disseminate Darwinistic ideas.
Such educational software is obviously nothing new — I remember playing Oregon Trail and Math Blaster on 51⁄4-inch floppies a million years ago — but the beauty in Spore's message is that it's so benign. You could play for hours on end without realizing the game is teaching you something about how small changes in genetic structure can drastically affect the advancement of a species.
And while the Spore interface is being considered much too simplistic to hold up to, say, Sid Meier's Civilization series in terms of depth (it's much closer to my most recent obsession, the console-streamlined Civilization: Revolution), the game is able to convey to players what scientists have been saying for decades.
The irony here, though, is that to achieve a true sense of evolutionary principles, Wright and his developers have put the player into the role of intelligent designer. Giving gamers the power to arbitrarily alter their creations may seem to run counter to the premise, but average players don't want to wait a few hundred million years for their creature to develop wristbones. In fact, the National Geographic Channel's documentary How to Build a Better Being featured scientists using Spore to design a Tiktaalik, a Devonian-era fish that did just that 375 million years ago, and in the process became the first aquatic creature to drag itself out of the water.
That creation was just an approximation, of course, but it still allowed the player a chance to give that creature a go and see how it would move and act in the Wright-created game physics. Ten minutes browsing the Sporepedia will show there's no shortage of imagination among gamers, even the ones who grouse that Spore is still an intelligent design game, or that Wright is pushing pseudo-science to sell games.
I see the opposite, however. Evolution is a hard concept to grasp, since people have no way to truly fathom the grand scale on which advantageous genetic mutations take hold of a population. By winnowing down the time line and making sea changes fairly instantaneous, this broad game is at least representative of the theory.
Then again, a hovering eyeball monster wouldn't exactly be a viable life form biologically, but hey, we're not talking blue-footed boobies here.
Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.