Spore’s Science Disappoints

I’m late to play Spore, the computer game by Will Wright in which you control a species through its long history, from cell to intergalactic power. I followed news of Spore through its design and release but my work-load stopped me from buying it…until now.

Spore has been lauded as a way to teach kids history and science. NPR interviewed Wright and E. O. Wilson, the eminent biologist, on the subject of games and science education. Wired’s GeekDad column gives 5 reasons to use Spore in the classroom. And IGN’s reviewer proclaims, “Will Wright is the science teacher you wish you had in school.” I beg to differ. There’s basically no good evolution or ecology in Spore. I wasn’t expecting a science simulation, or another SimEarth, but many aspects of Spore could easily have emulated the real world and been equally interesting—if not or more-so.

  1. There’s no real history to your creature’s evolution. The decisions you make at one stage place no constraints on what comes later. Those constraints, and the sense of gradual change through time, are key to evolution and completely lost.

  2. As in almost every game produced these days, you win by gradually accumulating stuff which gives a series of bonuses: claws, tails, hats, whatever. Progressively better do-dads are unlocked and there is no reason not to acquire them. Thus, trade-offs between traits, so crucial in the real-world, are basically absent because your only limitation is “DNA” points. (There is a semblance of a trade-off between different kinds of feet, for instance: some make you fast, others let you jump. But these effects are small and washed-out by a larger option: buy more feet.)

    • Energetics could have been a very simple way of introducing trade-offs: the more legs and wings you have, the more food you need to eat.
    • It would also make sense for some traits to interfere with one another, biomechanically or otherwise.
    • Simple body size is another critical variable in real biology: big things eat little things. This is seen nicely in the first stage of Spore but then goes away. Even a huge monster’s biting ability depends on simply the quality of its purchased mouth.
  3. All the creatures look the same, because they’re all vertebrates! It’s very strange for all these species to swim out of the ocean and gain legs of the same kind, arms of the same kind, etc. But animals do not need to be bilaterally symmetrical (e.g. starfish), or have spinal columns, or have arms, or otherwise be like humans. This is not just a science problem, but a pretty severe restriction on the creativity of building a beast.

    I understand some of the practical difficulties here: like wanting a “grasper” available for the tribal stage. But surely the editor could have been used to allow the player to position the “place of holding things” on his creation.

    In general, I have to admire the freedom given by the editor; surely it was quite a technical feat to pull off. But it seems like Wright was hell-bent on a certain kind of freedom that ultimately is very limiting because it’s small scale: I can rearrange parts on a string of spheres all day, but it’s still a string of spheres. A completely different approach might have given less sand-box type freedom but more fundamentally different choices (i.e. completely different body plans). Perhaps production restraints kept such choices out, but I think they might have been more important than what stayed in.

  4. The ecology is despairingly simple, which again makes all creatures the same because they cannot react to the environment differently:

    • There’s only one kind of plant food, and all creatures have equal access (some fruits are high up, yes, but low fruits are abundant so it doesn’t matter).
    • The terrain changes not at all, and poses no difficulties except an occasional gorge.
    • Inter-species relationships are rendered onto a single scale, enemy to friend. But friends are nothing more than bonuses in combat or making yet more friends. They do not provide habitat, or alternate food, or even scare predators away.

    So none of what’s important to evolution is present in the environment of the game. All creatures see the same habitat, so all experience identical selective pressures.

  5. Nests? I realize this is a useful simplification for many purposes. But creatures all gather in one little spot and sit there, rather than interact with the landscape or one another. So we get that effect in so many action games, where the enemies appear to be hanging around, just waiting for the hero to come kill them.

My thoughts on the history or anthropology of Spore, in the tribal stage, are similar to my problems with the biology, so I won’t bother going into them. At least the space stage can’t violate any real-world standards!

Concluding thoughts

I admire the vision of the game, and I expected to be jealous of Wright for having done it. But in fact, within a framework of huge potential, Wright seems to have been hamstrung by convention and competing goals.

Very disappointing is the formula of acquiring things to succeed. For starters, this is pedestrian and boring, and reminds the player he is on a treadmill of trivial tasks. It is also simplistic and has very little to do with evolution. In fact, it reinforces many popular misunderstandings of evolution, such as humans being some kind of predestined end-result. And this formula says something distressing about our society: that we see absolutely everything through the lens of consumerism. The issue of environmental degredation is complex, but certainly ego-centrism and commercialism have played their part; should a tool meant to teach natural history engender them so obviously?

The science in Spore is not merely simplified, as some have stated, but wholly absent. As an educational tool, it is likely to misinform regarding both the big ideas and small details. And perhaps it will corrupt as well. Teachers would be better off using SimEarth. Sadly, an overarching biology simulation has yet to arrive.

Nov 25, 2009 | Filed in reviews