I remember five years ago hearing about an incredible new game that was coming out. In Spore, you would be able to re-trace the history of evolution from cells to galactic civilizations. From Will Wright, the creator of Sim City and The Sims, it sounded too good to be true: a game that would be fun and that would involve fundamental concepts from science into the heart of the experience.
It was too good to be true.
I had eagerly signed up for the pre-order, and was able to download the game the day it came out. I started playing, and was caught up in the game for a while. Then I sat down to look at the science and found, well, nothing. Sure, the word “DNA” is used a lot, as is “evolve”, but the way the creatures develop looks nothing like how evolution proceeds in the real world. Most noticeably absent: any hint of natural selection as a driving force in shaping the organisms that populate the world. The players simply pick what attributes their creatures have by spending “DNA points”. At any time they can be completely re-designed. That’s not evolution; it’s not even intelligent design; it’s just a weirdly-premised game.
This is the same conclusion that was reached in this Science magazine article by John Bohannon (via 49 percent). He found five scientists to play and grade the game on its science content. It flunked, badly. Not only did it flunk, but the criteria were quite generous, to pass it only had to bear a rough semblance to the actual science. Here’s the money quote from T. Ryan Gregory and Niles Eldredge, the two evolutionary biologists recruited for the review:
Spore is essentially a very impressive, entertaining, and elaborate Mr. Potato Head that uses the language of evolution but none of the major principles.
The Science article does an excellent job of dissecting what’s wrong with the game. Let me add a bit about why it’s so disappointing. I firmly believe that one could design a fantastic game around the principles of natural selection. There are many good programs for simulating evolution. It would take a creative genius to make them into something enjoyable as a game, but Will Wright should have been that genius. He’d already done it once with Sim City; he could have done it again. For him to spend five years to produce a game about evolution that utterly fails to explore any of the central concepts of biology is, in a way, heartbreaking.
In a New York Times article by Carl Zimmer, Wright defended this approach by saying that, “…even if it’s not perfectly accurate, It’s manure to seed future scientists”. In other words, his goal is to excite people about the idea of science, not to get the science exactly right. I’m normally a big fan of that approach. In making a playable and entertaining game one certainly needs to make compromises and to bend concepts a bit — but compromise does not mean abandoning, in their entirety, the core ideas that make the science work.
Extremely weird bonus material: Linked from the Science article on Spore is another article about how Bohannon organized a scientific conference in World of Warcraft.