The Gonzo Scientist

Flunking Spore

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Science  24 Oct 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5901, pp. 531
DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5901.531b

John Bohannon

A series of reports on connections between science, culture, and the arts from Science Contributing Correspondent John Bohannon, who, in true gonzo style, will participate in the events he covers.

When I first heard about the computer game Spore, I couldn't think of a cooler way to celebrate Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. “Begin your odyssey at the dawn of life as a simple microbe just trying to survive,” reads a Spore marketing blurb, embarking on “an epic journey that takes you from the origin and evolution of life through the development of civilization.” Not only was Spore to be packed with evolutionary biology, but the game's science promised to be solid right down to the molecular level. Last month in an hour-long show on the National Geographic channel, the game's creator, Will Wright, spoke with biologists about “the breakthrough science that's revealing the secret genetic machinery that shapes all life in the game Spore.” A DVD of this show is even included in the “galactic edition” of the game. Wow! In an $11 billion game industry dominated by dull and bloody “first-person shooters”—not to mention a country where five out of 10 people do not accept evolution—a blockbuster game like Spore that communicates science to the public is sorely needed.

So over the past month, I've been playing Spore with a team of scientists, grading the game on each of its scientific themes. When it comes to biology, and particularly evolution, Spore failed miserably. According to the scientists, the problem isn't just that Spore dumbs down the science or gets a few things wrong—it's meant to be a game, after all—but rather, it gets most of biology badly, needlessly, and often bizarrely wrong. I also tracked down the scientists who appeared on television in what seemed like an endorsement of Spore's scientific content on the National Geographic channel. They said they had been led to believe that the interviews were for a straight documentary about “developmental evolutionary” science rather than a video promoting a computer game (see the news story in Science's 24 October issue). “I was used,” says Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, who worries that science has been “hijacked” to promote a product. How did things go so wrong for a game that seemed so good?

Pimp My Organism

In the game's opening video sequence, a meteor streaks past a sunlike star and crashes into the sea of a barren planet. A fragment of the space rock splits open underwater, revealing … you, a fully formed single-celled organism! (Fans of the theory of panspermia will recognize this artful dodge of the question of how life evolved in the first place.) Thus begins the Cell stage. With the help of a wiggling flagellum and a variable number of googly eyes, you dart forth into the primordial soup.

Spore is actually five games in one—a series of stages called Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization, and Space. The team of scientists grading Spore's science divvied up these stages based on their respective backgrounds. Focusing on the first two stages were T. Ryan Gregory and Niles Eldredge, evolutionary biologists at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, respectively. William Bainbridge, a sociologist and co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the U.S. National Science Foundation, took on stages three and four, Tribe and Civilization. The last stage, Space, went to Miles Smith, an astrophysicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. However, because each stage must be mastered to proceed to the next, the entire team had to slog through the early stages of the game.

“They've done a nice job with the look of the Cell stage,” said Gregory, who was clearly enjoying it. But Bainbridge was having the opposite experience. “I hate it so far,” he groaned. This surprised me because, of all of the scientists on the team, I expected Bainbridge to be the most tolerant of a computer game with science education pretenses. He spends vast amounts of time exploring the science of games, as I learned while co-organizing a conference that took place inside a game with him earlier this year. But for Bainbridge, Spore is too simplistic. “It seems like a cutesy children's game.” Eldredge had a similar reaction: “Just from the graphics, I hate it.”

Many reviewers agree with Bainbridge and Eldredge, dismissing Spore's Cell stage as a clone of the 1980s arcade game Pac-Man. It's true that your movements are limited to a two-dimensional plane—in spite of supposedly being submerged in three-dimensional water—and your goal here is also to gobble up food and avoid predators. But like Gregory, I was impressed by it.

One aspect that lifts the Cell stage above Pac-Man inanity is how it represents microscopic life. “I quite like the way it changes scale when you grow,” said Gregory. There you are, swimming desperately away from enormous organisms that are trying to eat you, when you gobble up a stray piece of food just in the nick of time to trigger a growth spurt. The transition looks just like under a microscope, smoothly zooming up to a larger field of view. Larger shapes loom just out of focus. (I generously imagined the two-dimensionality as the result of the microbes being squashed between a microscope slide and a cover slip.) “Now all the organisms that had previously been your size and preying upon you are suddenly smaller, so you turn around and eat them,” Gregory said. “I like that.”

Those other organisms are another aspect that sets Spore apart from simple video games. When we created our species—my first was the Omninibble, created with the username DarwinRoolz—we found ourselves in tide pools teeming with other single-celled creatures, all of them created by other players. In contrast to “massively multi-user” games such as World of Warcraft, Spore bills itself as the first “massively single-user” game. Whenever you create a new species in Spore, it automatically uploads to the Sporepedia, an online server maintained by the game's manufacturer, Electronic Arts. By default, a random sample of species from the Sporepedia seeds your planet. If you want, you can custom build a planet inhabited only by species created by you and your friends. So although you're never pitted against any of the millions of other Spore players, you do encounter their creations under your computer's control.

Plus, your own creation evolves over time. Eating food not only repairs damage to your health but also generates “DNA points” that you can use to upgrade body parts. (Think of Pimp My Ride with organisms instead of cars.) Depending on whether you choose carnivory or herbivory at the start of the game, your cell comes equipped with either a parrotlike beak or filter-feeding fronds. But changing lifestyles is as easy as cashing in DNA for a new mouth—or if you prefer, multiple mouths—along with extra flagella, defensive spikes, poison-spewing vesicles, and other organismic add-ons.

We all finished the Cell stage in about an hour. “It's a pity that it was done just as I was getting into it,” says Gregory. Once you've accumulated enough DNA points, the game tells you that you're ready for the next stage of evolution. With a click of the “evolve” button, you attach a pair of legs to your organism and off you go, waddling out onto land and into the Creature stage.

Playing (a) God

If the game had stopped at the Cell stage, it would have fared better. But once Spore hits the Creature stage, it takes a nosedive in both science and game quality. Using a woefully clunky interface, you steer your creature across an unremarkable (and unmistakably Earthlike) landscape in search of other species. Once you find them, you have two options. You either attack them, in which case the goal is to drive them to extinction (at least on that planet), or try to befriend them. The latter consists of an even more mindless mini-game within the mini-game: Imitating the other species' social behaviors by choosing one of four options—singing, dancing, posing, or “charming”—in the correct sequence.

The game's makers are clearly aiming for the highly lucrative family and education markets. “Since the game's release we've received a lot of interest from various schools and universities around the world,” a Spore spokesperson wrote me in an e-mail. “So that's a good sign that there's a lot of interest in [the] academic/education community.” To earn an E (for Everyone) by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, all of Spore's potentially sharp edges have been sanded down and buffered with child-safe fluff. Rather than nature red in tooth and claw, you get goofy dance-offs and bloodless cartoon battles. Rather than looking realistic, Spore's creatures look ready-made for the plush toy industry. And then there's the sex.

All species reproduce sexually in Spore. That must have posed quite a challenge for the development team's kiddy police. I can't fault them on this count because the compromise solution made me laugh out loud. Once you return to the nest and hit the “call mate” button, another of your species approaches with a flurry of Valentine hearts. What follows is a soft-porn vision of how cartoon characters come to be. Easy-listening lounge music pipes in as the pair coo and gyrate in slow circles, never touching, before one of them suddenly squats on the nest and—from no apparent orifice—pops out an egg.

This brings you to the Creature Creator, a biological toolshed in which you can squeeze and stretch your creature's skeleton into nearly any shape, as well as choose upgrades from a menu of body parts. The Creature Creator really does make you feel like a god, shaping your creation as you see fit. (You're not a special god, though, because all the other creatures that you encounter in the game have been lovingly crafted by millions of other gods.)

Bainbridge, already way ahead of the rest of the team with several creatures under his belt, was fed up. “I loathe Spore,” he announced. But Gregory and Eldredge remained upbeat. “Niles's and my creation is Punky Quillibra, and it is a fierce predator,” Gregory reported. (The name comes from the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which Eldredge developed with Stephen J. Gould.) “If you must know, yes, those are antlers on its back,” he added. “They look dumb, but they give him level-5 charge—so say that to his face!” But in spite of getting a kick out of the Creature stage, Gregory and Eldredge saw it as the final nail in the coffin for Spore's claim of having anything to do with evolution.

“The problem is that the game features virtually none of the key ingredients of evolution as we understand it,” says Gregory. “There's no shared common descent between species, since every single creature in Spore can trace its lineage back to a different single-celled organism that arrives from space.” Spore also lacks biological variation. “When you run into other members of your species, they are always identical clones of you.” Nor does it have natural selection. “There are no consequences for dying, since you just reappear at your nest.” Your organism does evolve, says Gregory, “in the sense that it changes over time, but it really has no bearing on how things evolve in the real world.”

To make his point, Gregory transformed Punky Quillibra into a species that he calls the Saltator, after the concept of saltation. Using the Creature Creator, he changed every feature of the beast—swapping its two reptilian limbs for six insectoid ones, hands for a pair of spiked balls, and even the tail for a pair of butt-mounted antlers—all in a single generation. “Clearly, the only thing that determines an organism's morphology in Spore is what the player thinks looks cool,” he said. (Before Electronic Arts began filtering it, the Sporepedia was filled with creatures designed to resemble human genitalia.) “And even that doesn't matter because you're ultimately forced to evolve into a terrestrial vertebrate with sentience, which is completely teleological. That's not real science,” says Gregory. The “goal” of evolution is not to produce walking, talking vertebrates, because the process is undirected and unintelligent.

You might think that Spore's fatal flaw would be that it supports intelligent design rather than Darwinian evolution. (That's what I initially thought.) But it turns out to be not even that interesting. “Spore is essentially a very impressive, entertaining, and elaborate Mr. Potato Head that uses the language of evolution but none of the major principles,” conclude Gregory and Eldredge.

In the spirit of fairness, I had a copy of Spore sent to Michael Behe, an intelligent design advocate based at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. After playing Spore, he concluded that it “has nothing to do with real science or real evolution—neither Darwinian nor intelligent design.”

As Gregory and Eldredge argue, if Spore's biology is based on any theory, then—surely, by coincidence rather than scholarly effort—it is Lamarckian evolution. According to that early 19th century notion, organisms gain traits through effort during their lifetimes. As Behe points out, this makes Spore strikingly similar to the cartoon Pokémon. “Weird creatures are stored in colorful balls and released when the human Pokémon masters want them to fight. If the Pokémon beat enough other creatures and gain strength, they 'evolve' in a puff of smoke into a more powerful creature, sort of resembling the original but with more abilities.” This seems to have been Spore's biological model rather than anything from science.

From Tribes to Space

If the Creature stage is merely boring, I agree with Bainbridge that the next two stages, Tribe and Civilization, are cringe-worthy. In the Tribe stage, your species gains sentience and culture. That sounds promising, but all it amounts to is the very same game structure as before but killing and befriending tribes rather than species. From this point onward, your species' biological evolution is frozen in whatever random Picasso portrait of limbs and eyes you last produced. Instead of the Creature Creator, you get to dress up your tribal species with items from a kind of minstrel anthropology wardrobe. It was too hard to decide between the American Indian-style feathered satchel and the North African fez hat, so I stuck both onto my newly “tribal” Omninibble.

The fourth stage of Spore is a watered-down knock-off of Civilization, the brilliantly addictive game that has consumed hundreds of hours of my life. The pieces on the game board are now buildings and vehicles rather than organisms, and the goal—stop me if you've heard this before—is to destroy or befriend the other civilizations on your planet. (On the plus side, the Building Editor allowed me to create cities composed entirely of egg-shaped towers that resemble alien Easter egg baskets.)

You'll breathe a weary sigh of relief when you finally reach what Spore's creators clearly cared about the most: the Space stage. It's not that this final game within the game offers anything new in terms of structure. You now control a spaceship—which I designed to look like a submarine golf ball—and the goal is to extend your empire of planetary colonies across the galaxy. (Yes, attacking or befriending other spacefaring species along the way.) While grading this final chapter of the game, Smith was most impressed. “If Spore has one great message,” he concluded, “it is that our own existence is connected to that of the universe and to the forces that have shaped it.”

You start by launching into space from the surface of your home planet. That brings you to a view of your ship in orbit within a solar system. With a roll of your mouse's scroll wheel, you zoom out to see your star system in the context of dozens of other star systems. Zoom your perspective farther out and the spiral galaxy itself looms into view, with many other distant galaxies visible all around. That's 20 orders of magnitude with the flick of a finger! I spent hours just whizzing around to new star systems, zooming down to various planets, and using my Abduction Beam to fill the ship's cargo hold with terrified aliens. But I'm easily amused.

Spore's Report Card

The team's ground rules for grading Spore's science provided plenty of wiggle room. To make the mark, Spore had only to reflect science intelligently, not fully simulate it. There's plenty of educational science-simulating software out there but nothing that you'd want to play with your children. According to its own marketing, Spore promises a scientifically sophisticated adventure, an “epic journey that takes you from the origin and evolution of life through the development of civilization and eventually all the way into the deepest reaches of outer space.” Spore only had to show a good-faith effort to engage players with real science.

I created an online Spore Science Grading Page where you can read the team's full critique. Spore's biology grades rolled in like a slow-motion train wreck. For organismic biology—genetics, cell biology, reproduction, and development—Gregory and Eldredge smacked Spore with a D-. The game flunked evolutionary biology outright with an F. According to Gregory and Eldredge, “Spore has very little to do with real biology.”

Although Bainbridge hated Spore as a game more than any of the other reviewers, he gave better marks for its science. For the cultural anthropology in the Tribe stage, Spore scraped by with a C-. “There really are no tribes here, because tribes are an outgrowth of kinship, and there is no real kinship,” he concludes. “Had Spore lived up to the publicity that it was a game based on evolution, then there would have been biological reproduction, families, and the basis for much of what cultural anthropology studies. The grade would be lower, except that there is a cultural-anthropological basis for the exchange of gifts which Spore illustrates.”

Line drawing of a blob monster with lots of tentacles and eyeballs.”

Bainbridge gave Spore's sociology a B+. “Given how brief the Civilization phase is, it includes much of relevance to real sociology, such as the division of labor, public opinion, and the fact that religious movements exploit unresolved human dissatisfactions. … One of the ways a player may conquer another city is through religious conversion, and attempts are more likely to succeed if the inhabitants of the city are unhappy.” It's not clear what religious players of Spore will make of that.

Smith gave Spore's Space stage its highest scientific marks. “I was never expecting a computer game to be rigorously formulated based on the laws of physics,” said Smith. But because it takes many of the typical science fiction shortcuts, such as faster-than-light travel, he gave Spore a C on the laws of physics. Spore earned a C on astrobiology as well, because intelligent life is so common that you trip over it in nearly every star system. Spore's rendering of the galaxy's structure earned it the one and only A.

The bottom line: In spite of its marketing, Spore clearly has little in common with science, especially evolution. That's a pity, because with very minor tweaks, the game could live up to its promise. Gregory and Eldredge's critique provides several good ideas, such as incurring a developmental cost for making radical body-plan changes. Another easy improvement would be to weave relevant science into the fabric of the existing game. In the game Civilization, for example, you learn a great deal about the history of ancient cultures through a series of pop-up mini-articles. When you stick a limb on your creature, wouldn't it be nice to have an optional pop-up window that explains the real (and fascinating) science behind limb evolution?

Spore flunks, but there's still hope for its future. Once released, games often improve over several generations through downloaded software patches and new editions. Let's hope that noncomplacent families and science educators provide some selective pressure. Then Spore itself might evolve.

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