Confessions of an intelligent designer

Monday, 15 September 2008 — 3:07am | Science, Video games

I’ve spent the better portion of the week playing Spore. Strictly speaking, one doesn’t finish the game—once your species has developed as far as it can as a spacefaring civilization, you can keep on playing for as long as you like—but sometime on Wednesday night, I completed the “42” achievement for discovering the secret at the centre of the galaxy, which is the closest thing the game has to an ultimate goal. In the true spirit of Battlestar Galactica I have yet to find Earth, though I am assured that it exists, and that you can destroy it.

In case you couldn’t tell, Spore is rather fantastic. Will Wright couldn’t have been more correct when he said (to paraphrase) that there’s a great unexplored gulf between the massive multiplayer online game à la World of Warcraft and the joy of the classic single-player experience where you, you get to be the star of the show without any interference from the addicts, cheaters, and generally rude malcontents who dominate computer game culture on the Internet. So here you have a game of a scope that could only be satisfactorily populated by the freshness, diversity, and sheer staggering quantity of user-generated content in the shared online space—but the territory of the playground itself is yours and yours alone. It’s like Animal Crossing, but more so.

There are some design flaws, many of which are fertile ground for future bloodletting sessions at the hands of Electronic Arts (aka expansion packs), but I want to get the elementary what-works-what-doesn’t criticism out of the way quickly so I can talk about more stimulating topics like user-driven storytelling and everyone’s favourite weasel word(s), intelligent design.


Here’s my laundry list of trifling complaints:

  • The Cell and Creature phases end prematurely. After you hit the DNA point cap, you can still swim or run around, but everything you do is inconsequential. I can see why a mandatory endpoint is essential for the sake of balance—you don’t want an overpowered cell covered in spikes growing legs and stomping everything on land, or a creature so loaded with anatomical weaponry it can take down an Epic Creature all by itself—but the end comes much too soon. But that’s the trick to leaving you wanting more, isn’t it: cutting you off while you’re still having fun.
  • The Tribal phase feels out of place. It’s the weakest of the game’s five phases by far, in part because it allows for the least customization apart from a minute selection of ill-fitting clothes, but more because it breaks the accumulating sense of progress in the game. It doesn’t render everything you’ve done up to that point totally irrelevant—if your species has the body parts to sneak around and fly, then in the tribal phase, they still sneak around and fly—but it sure feels that way, somehow. And unlike the Civilization phase, the skills you pick up in the Tribal phase don’t carry forward to what you do later in the game. When the whole point of breaking the game into phases is to create an illusion of continuity, this is a problem.
  • The spaceship controls are unwieldy. The Space phase is the meat and potatoes of the game, and in many ways is the game. Everything else is just preparation. So I’m just a little miffed that I can’t switch between the Scanner and the Abduction Ray in one or two keystrokes, given how often I have to do it. Nor am I pleased that I receive one mission after another to zap contaminated animals with my laser when they are hiding behind trees, or that I have to click frantically on moving targets in space battles. The Space phase of Spore is majestic, but the interface holds it back.
  • The documentation is limited. I regret not buying the Galactic Edition with the 100-page manual and bonus material (not having learned my lesson from Civilization IV), but if the standard manual is going to be an interface guide that doubles for the in-game tutorials, I expect a little more from the in-game Spore Guide. I’m a number-crunching optimizer as a player, and I like knowing why some numbers come out the way they do. That’s to say nothing of what I believe may be a wealth of undocumented hotkeys.
  • Typographical and orthographical errors abound. Well, it’s not quite fair to say abound, but a misplaced apostrophe here and a “greatful” there, and I start cracking my knuckles. I expect this to be solved in the first patch, or else.
  • The game has a limited lifespan. This may be the price of being the first single-player game to truly exploit the advantages of online content-sharing, but Spore is so reliant on being connected that as soon as the servers go down, the party’s over. My prediction: ten years. Not many people complain about this sort of thing because we’ve become so acclimatized to an electronic game industry that thinks in the present and doesn’t put much stock in preserving its own history. It’s not Spore‘s fault; the problem with the Internet as a whole is its latent ephemerality.
  • The Mac OS X installation’s file system is a mess. This is very technical note here, but bear with me. Here’s a challenge for those of you playing Spore on the Mac: try figuring out where the game stores your save data. The Cider scheme that EA uses for porting Windows games to OS X creates a whole Windows directory structure, Program Files, Documents and Settings and all, and dumps it somewhere very, very deep in your user account’s Library. As far as cost-effective (read: lazy) solutions go, it works, and it means we Mac users have a playable game on day one. Just don’t look under the hood. On the upside, at least we OS X types don’t have to put up with the draconian catastrophe of the SecuROM copy-protection scheme (as far as I can tell). The installation was silky smooth, and nobody’s forcing me to keep the DVD in the drive to play the game.

That was longer than I thought. So permit me to repeat that in spite of the above, Spore is an awe-inspiring game. But it is at its best at the extremities of its scale: your first dip in the tidepool, and your journey across the stars.


Here are two related complaints you will not hear me make, though they are quite common in the enthusiast press as well as the popular opinion of some game-players:

  • It’s too easy.
  • There’s no story.

Welcome to the world of interactive entertainment! You must be new here.

One of the things you can always, always rely on when it comes to the self-proclaimed “core” demographic of the electronic game industry is its narrow-minded view of what their hobby contains and what it can do. Just as they exhibit the hubris to speak on behalf of all game-players, they believe that their way of playing is indicative of everybody else’s. (This is but one instance of a general problem in society that rears its head whenever anyone presumes to speak for any group or culture. Then again, I don’t understand why anyone would ever willingly sacrifice their own individuality on the altar of collective self-identification—which, as I understand it, puts me out of touch with the masses.)

Let’s set aside, for a moment, the fact that Spore has three difficulty settings. (The difference, sadly, falls right into one of those gaping holes in the documentation that I mentioned earlier.) Those who complain it isn’t difficult enough only conceive of difficulty within the limited confines of impediments to progression. In short, they want to die, and they want to be punished for it.

Spore is not that kind of game. It is a game where the difficulty is proportional to your ambitions as a player. This is why the Tribal phase, which doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room in terms of what you choose to pursue, isn’t that all that interesting, while the Creature and Space phases, which allow you to challenge tougher foes and attempt colossal tasks if you’d like, are where the game flaunts its strengths. It is as challenging as you’d like to make it. The challenge is never mandatory. That means you have a choice, and choice is the most critical element of interactive entertainment, full stop.

The second complaint, that there’s no story, is even more absurd. Of course there’s a story. Spore is one of the most story-rich games I’ve ever witnessed. It’s just a far cry from the naïve format that limits the narrative possibilities of some of the most enjoyable games out there, where you’re just trying to survive and navigate your way from one movie clip to the next. Stories are systems of goal-driven decisions. The difference that comes with interactivity is that you make the decisions. And in “games of development” like the titles of Will Wright (SimCity, Spore) and Sid Meier (Pirates!, Civilization), you set the goals.

The magic of Spore is that it allows for so many different pleasures, and thus, so many different types of players. Some people will be hell-bent on predatory conquest; they can do that. Some people want to customize everything from elaborate creature designs to the patterns of rivers and hills on their planets; they can do that. I happen to like free-roaming exploration, optimizing budgets, and developing sustainable ecologies; I can do that. That’s story.


What of Spore‘s educational implications? Is it a game of evolution, or intelligent design?

For a primer, I recommend Luke O’Brien’s piece in Slate, which is as thought-provoking for what it says about SimCity as it is vis-à-vis Spore:

While most SimCity addicts were busy building cities and then destroying them via earthquake, wonkier types were puzzling over the game’s rules and value system. In a 1994 article in the American Prospect, Paul Starr referred to SimCity’s “hidden curriculum.” He noted that success required players to build cities on an industrial base, and he criticized the game’s bias against mixed-use development. Private land values were pegged to the public budget, and the city’s health depended on zoning and allocation of resources, which determined tax receipts. The underlying structure of the game was, in the words of Wright himself, a “capitalistic land value ecology.”

Other critics questioned the absence of race, pointing out that simulating urban decay without taking ethnicity into account was unrealistic, if not manipulative. And then there were taxes. Raise them enough, and your citizens would riot. Every kid who played SimCity absorbed the underlying message: Taxes are dangerous. This was Milton Friedman in code. Still, it wasn’t enough to satisfy conservatives. They said the game punished players for buying nuclear power plants while rewarding them for building mass transit. They grumbled that the game ignored the private market and depicted the state as the sole engine for urban growth. (For what it’s worth, in the last year Wright has donated nearly $100,000 to Republican political causes. He backed Giuliani for president. He now supports McCain.)

Ha! Wait until O’Brien hears about how SimCity 4, which introduced graduated taxation, encourages you to tax the poor to subsidize the rich. (It makes for beautiful suburbs.)

Back on topic: in the article, O’Brien goes on to illustrate how advocates of intelligent design and clear-headed, reasonable people alike are laying claim to Spore as ammunition for their cause.

Let’s not bury our heads in the sand: by placing creature design into the player’s hands instead of leaving it up to random mutation, Spore inherently owes a lot to intelligent design. There’s still room for a real game about evolution in the Darwinian sense, where you set certain environmental constraints and preconditions, let a species run loose, and see if it survives in an ecosystem full of other models—kind of like how some engineers pit robots in mortal battle, but with adaptation. But the creatures themselves wouldn’t nearly be as much fun. A Will Wright game is all about maximizing player agency; more power to him.

Should this trouble us? I doubt it. What should trouble us is the “educators” who seek to use Spore to promote creationist ideology, but not the game itself. To argue that Spore advocates intelligent design is equivalent to saying that Harry Potter promotes witchcraft. It’s silly. The product is not the problem; people are the problem.

We accept magic and mythology in fiction all the time because fiction exists within its own coherent propositions and has no responsibility to the correspondence theory of truth. Biblical ideas may not be true in the literal sense, but the motifs sure make for good stories. Even die-hard atheists have no trouble accepting this: see Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy for details. So maybe intelligent design makes for a good computer game. So what? It doesn’t mean it’s true. This is also a game that clings to the sci-fi pipe-dream of faster-than-light interstellar travel. And is that really very different?

In the end, I predict that Spore‘s educational influence will lean favourably towards its evolutionary component: that, regardless of who’s fiddling with the parts, creatures survive with the aid of their generational mutations, all of which are initially functional, most of which decline in use as soon as they accessorize themselves with tools. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the game. Just wait until you get to the Space phase, colonize stellar bodies in habitable-zone orbits, and start balancing food chains on a planetary scale. Games like this are at their best as educational instruments when years later, a student encounters a new concept and is able to connect it with something he has seen before. Spore lays plenty of groundwork for that kind of rediscovery. Our responsibility is to ensure, at a higher level, that students have the critical faculties to differentiate science from myth.


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