Spore: When Games and Science Collide

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Behold Guilfordus horribilus, and shudder all thee ye who cross its path…

At some point in the distant past, I became aware of a very cool-sounding game in the works. It was called Spore, and it was the creation of Will Wright, who first came to my attention long ago with SimCity, an addictive game that let you build and run a toy city. There was no prize for your reward, no cheesy trumpet music of victory–just the quiet satisfaction of overseeing a thriving metropolis, or watching it collapse as you unleash Godzilla and falling meteorites on its fair streets. What was most interesting, at least to me, was that good intentions did not get you very far. A plan that seemed to make eminent sense could turn out to be a disaster in the most unexpected ways. It was a good lesson in nonlinear dynamics.

Spore was even more ambitious–Wright promised to turn billions of years of evolution from single-celled creatures to intergalactic civilizations into a game. It also generated an awesome frenzy of anticipation, with articles in Wired and the New Yorker appearing years–years–before the game would finally be released (this coming Friday).I was intrigued, but a little skeptical. Some of the press touted it as an evolution game, even though it didn’t sound much like what evolution was really about. But given that Wright is the creator of the biggest-selling video game ever (the Sims), I figured this was a cultural moment worth writing about.

So I asked for a copy of Spore to play around with–and Guilfordus horribilus (named after my dear town) is evidence of several hours of studious research I spent killing little helpless creatures and singing songs to build up a pack to kill bigger helpless creatures. I also arranged for a couple evolutionary biologists to play around with it, in order to see what their experience would be like.

The surprising results are here, in the lead story of  tomorrow’s Science Times section of the New York Times.[Note: Thanks to Simea in the comments for correcting me in two languages.]