Evolution by (game) design

Think this looks weird?: Creatures you create in Spore will put this trilobite to shame.
Think this looks weird?: Creatures you create in Spore will put this trilobite to shame.Courtesy kevinzim
A new computer simulation game based on the theory of evolution is being released today by Electronic Arts, the same company that created the vastly popular SimCity and The Sims. I lost interest in playing video games years ago, but my kids were big fans of the Sims series.

The new game, called Spore, begins with a meteorite delivering the building blocks of life into a primordial planetary ocean. As your life-form eats and grows it acquires DNA points and traits that help it survive. Single-cell organism gradually transform into more complex multi-cellular ones that eventually develop brains, defense mechanisms, and alliances to survive long enough to further evolve - eventually - into advanced civilizations and societies.

When a new generation appears, you’re given access to the game’s Editor, and the ability to add mutations to your creature’s offspring. According to Will Wright the game’s creator the Editor is “roughly a mixture of Mr. Potato Head, an Erector Set, and clay”. Parts can be given more than just one function, so, for example, a tail can be used both as a grasper and stinging weapon if that’s what you want.

Along the way your creature can be designated a predator or prey, whichever strategy proves more useful for it to flourish. It can co-operate with other species, or you can make it competitive and just have it run roughshod over everyone else, and see how that works out for you.

Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago who studies how evolutionary modifications produce different body plans, was shown the game recently and delighted by it.

“Playing the game you can’t help but feel amazed how, from a few simple rules and instructions, you can get a complex functioning world with bodies, behaviors and whole ecosystems,” he said.

Luckily, (if you haven't already done so on the earlier Spore link) you can also see a great demonstration of the game yourself just by clicking below. The rather extensive demo is given by Will Wright himself.

In the end, I think the idea is to become civilized enough to develop into a society of space colonizers (I suppose so the process can start again).

Some scientists like Shubin love the game, while others aren’t so impressed, complaining it simplifies a very complicated process. But so what? Small mutations over millions of years would take…well, millions of years to play out properly in a more realistic simulation. Do they really want my kids playing computers games more than they already are? I don’t think so.

At least by presenting some of evolution’s grand ideas, Spore just might inspire some gangly, pimple-faced kid to let go of the controller long enough to investigate further the intricacies of the science and natural selection. How could that be bad? But, I have to tell you, after watching the above video demonstration, I’m very eager to try out the game myself.


NYT story
Spore review

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