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Cute vs. Science

A bit of a follow up on my Spore post. Seed magazine has an article about the design process used to create the game. As PZ notes, one of the big problems appears to be that they set up a “Science team” and a “Cute team”, and that the science team lost.

One part of the Seed article that jumped out at me was this:

Stephen Webster, a science communications expert at Imperial College, London, answers unequivocally when asked if he feels Spore could further muddy waters already clouded with ignorance and misinformation: “No, I don’t, and I’ll tell you why. My experience of working with science and communication is that people separate quite clearly one domain of their life from another. These games work not because people think they’re teaching them science, but because you can do the manipulation… You can see the results from what you do.”

Now, I certainly believe that’s true in general. People are quite good at differentiating things like games, movies, and Bill O’Reilley from reality. The question is, if the game is marketed as being about evolution, and promoted as being a possible teaching tool, does that still hold? I have no idea what the answer is, but it gets to the heart about what bugs me, and I suspect most scientists, about Spore. It’s not that it got a lot of science wrong, it’s that it did it in the middle of a promotional blitz about how great of a science game it is.

For more insight into the development, see this interview with the lead designer and this post by a former intern. It really does appear that at one time the game was much closer to the science, and a number of active design decisions moved it away.

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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.

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