Will Wright, a rockstar of game design, creator of SimCity and the Sims (among others), talks science and his new game, Spore, in the August issue of Discover magazine. I haven’t found an online version of the interview yet, but it is worth at least a newsstand read if 1) you are interested in evolutionary biology and how it filters out into popular culture, or 2) you are a huge fanboy drooling in anticipation of Spore’s release.
Since I’m 1 and 2 it was an interesting read for me. In Spore, which has been known in gaming circles as SimEverything, players will shape the evolution of life from microbe to star-faring intelligent being. Based on the interview, Wright seems to know his stuff when it comes to evolutionary biology; he discusses things like fitness landscapes and punctuated equilibrium. I was really happy to see him mention one of the critical elements of evolution that is simple but that people seem to have a hard time dealing with: the incredible amount of time involved.
As Wright says in the interview:
[People] think, oh, you’ve got this one mutation and then the creature is a little bit better at seeing, therefore it survives. But, in fact, it is much more of a numbers game: You have thousands of creatures that have a slightly better chance of seeing, and statistically they survive 1 percent better. People aren’t used to dealing with the numbers and the timescales involved.I think that Wright is right on here. Even mutations that have a very small effect on fitness in some situations can go on to become widespread in populations. All it takes is time, and Earth has been around for a long time. But people are used to thinking about things very locally and very individually. It is tough to really get your mind around how long 100,000 years is, or how mutations can spread in large populations breeding over thousands of generations.
Yet I don’t think Spore will embody these lessons, exactly. As the Discover interviewer, Alan Burdick, points out, the game is being called a “teleological evolution” game. From the beginning, evolution in Spore has a direction. As Wright says in the interview:
What’s ironic, really, is it’s intelligent design. As a player you go through an arc of being this lowly little cell, being attacked by pond scum, to eventually becoming a god. At the godlike level, you can almost do the whole creationist thing if you want: “I will create a planet; I will create species; I will put them on the planet.”Still, I can’t see a game that so fully embraces the evolution of life on many planets over enormous amounts of time as being consonant with a creationist worldview. If this game is half as popular as the Sims, it seems it could do some good in putting a very simple idea about organic evolution in homes across the country.