SimEverything: Will Wright and the Game of Life

A new campaign is sweeping Manhattan. Over the course of the past week, strange, amoebic creatures — some vaguely reminiscent of Stitch, Disney’s antisocial alien — have materialized all over the city, appearing on billboards and at bus stops, and leaving many to wonder what exactly a winged, three-eyed monster could be advertising.

The answer is a computer game, and for more serious nerds (myself not included), a long-anticipated one. Spore is the latest from Sims mastermind Will Wright, and certainly the most ambitious of his work to date. The game’s tagline is, “Spore: How Will You Create the Universe?,” and in a nutshell, this is pretty much the point. Beginning as a one-celled organism, players progress through five stages of evolution (cell, creature, tribal, civilization and space), determining the conditions of the next phase based on performance in the last. Basically, if you design your creature to be a piranha-toothed rabbit, then cannibalism (and perhaps large litters) will characterize your burgeoning civilization.

But apart from drawing praise for its versatile platform and stunning graphics (another Will Wright trademark) Spore has gained most of its notoriety, weirdly enough, through generating scientific debate. Since the game’s Sept. 7 release date, articles have appeared everywhere from Slate to Time to NPR wondering whether a game mimicking evolution (even a linear, guided model of it) is a vehicle for evolution or rather, a Trojan horse for intelligent design.

Unlike other ‘god games,’ Spore’s adaptability allows players to introduce random elements into play, even incorporating a massive peer-to-peer network that allows users to create and share content online. In later phases of the game, players can even visit each others’ universes, although I’m told that attempting to destroy them is strictly prohibited. While the game is technically single-player, Wright has described it as modeled around “asynchronous sharing,” or in other words, multiplayer, but not in real time, kind of like online scrabble or chess. But in spite of Wright’s open-ended approach to gaming, all creatures, furry and feathered alike, ultimately progress through the same phases and end up in space. Because of this, Wright himself has stated that the game contains elements of both evolution and intelligent design, defusing attempts from both sides to take up the game as an educational tool.

And what’s wrong with that? It is, after all, just a computer game. But in the midst of all the debate, one thing that struck me as notoriously absent from discussion is the design of the game itself, which actually creates content “on-the-fly” and adapts it to  environments as the game is being played.  From Seed:

Much of the game’s content is procedurally generated, meaning it is created “on-the-fly” while the game is in progress instead of being retrieved from storage, which results in drastic savings in memory usage. While scientists at prestigious research organizations like the Santa Fe Institute study the link between the structure and emergent functions of complex systems, Spore uses similar ideas to procedurally generate creature animation. The game decides how a newly created creature should move based on its body design instead of working from saved specifications. Many video games have used procedural techniques before, but none to the extent that Spore does. The music is even generated this way, by creating and merging musical fragments based on samples.

(The music samples, FYI, were done by Brian Eno). On a technical level, another facet of Spore’s innovation is that it marks one of the first predominantly ‘remix’ patterned computer games, creating and recycling content as the game is being played. Unlike older games, which set clear limits as to how characters move and interact with their environments, Spore actually adapts, and takes into account the specifications of certain creatures, whether they’re woolly, one-legged or grasshopper-sized. In this sense, Spore actually reimagines how uniquely designed creatures interact with and affect their environments. So while the game might not prove too helpful for teaching life’s design, perhaps what it does offer are new ways of considering relationships between organisms and complex systems, and ultimately, how we think about these questions at all.

Finally, here’s Robin Williams playing Spore.

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~ by Jessica on September 17, 2008.

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