Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Spore and Astrobiology

Thursday, September 7th, Electronic Arts will release their new game Spore. One of the game's novel features is the ability to design your own creatures that evolve as the game progresses.

It turns out that game designer Will Wright drew on the work of astrobiologist Jill Tarter - director of the Center for SETI research - in developing Spore. They sat down at The Seed Salon to discuss "gaming and science, the value of scientific revolutions, and advanced life in the universe", not to mention evolution and the "intelligent design" in the game universe.


Seedmagazine.com The Seed Salon


Carl Zimmer had an article in Sunday's New York Times, "Gaming Evolves", takes a closer look at computer modeling of evolution and the way the process is depicted in Spore.
Evolutionary biologists like Dr. Near and Dr. Prum, who have had a chance to try the game, like it a great deal. But they also have some serious reservations. The step-by-step process by which Spore’s creatures change does not have much to do with real evolution. “The mechanism is severely messed up,” Dr. Prum said.

Nevertheless, Dr. Prum admires the way Spore touches on some of the big questions that evolutionary biologists ask. What is the origin of complexity? How contingent is evolution on flukes and quirks? “If it compels people to ask these questions, that would be great,” he said.

Paleontologist Neil Shubin, discoverer of the Tiktaalik fossil, which has a form intermediate between fish and amphibians, also gave Spore a positive review:

Dr. Shubin found that Spore gave players a feel for how evolution uses the same basic tool kit to produce different body plans. “Playing the game,” he said, “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.”

Spore also mimicked evolution in another way that pleased Dr. Shubin. “Will asked me, ‘Why did creatures evolve to walk on land?’ ” he recalled. “I mentioned that the freshwater ecosystems of the Late Devonian were pretty predator-intensive. He smirked.”

Not surprisingly, however, the game doesn't accurately reflect the mechanisms of evolution.
In the real world, new traits evolve as mutations arise and spread gradually through entire populations. Winning Spore’s DNA points does not work even as a remote metaphor.

“I do hope that it doesn’t confuse people as to what evolution is all about,” said Charles Ofria, a computer scientist at Michigan State University and a creator of Avida.

Spore may also mislead players with the way it is set up as a one-dimensional march of progress from single-cell life to intelligence. Evolution is more like a tree than a line, with species branching in millions of directions. Sometimes species become more complex, and sometimes they become less so. And sometimes they do not change at all. “There’s no progressive arrow that dominates nature,” Dr. Prum said.

So the game seems to get a few concepts right, but misses on the basic mechanisms and the bigger picture that there is no such thing as evolutionary "progress". Is that a problem? It may be, since National Geographic is running a special, "How to Build a Better Being", that seems to promote Spore as an accurate depiction of evolutionary biology. Here's their promo:
The hour-long program is structured around evolutionary/gene stories from the human body. Providing scaffolding for this challenging subject, video game designer Will Wright, inventor of the best-selling SimsCity and The Sims, is developing a new game based on evolution. Its called Spore-- a fantastic voyage from gene pool to interstellar space -- and it offers an amazing way to dive deeper into the science behind evolution. Wright visits the labs of top scientists and we draw upon Spores Pixar-quality animation to connect the dots behind the billion-year history of the human body.
That certainly doesn't make it sound like the special is going to spend much time on the inaccuracies in the way Spore depicts evolution.

As biochemist Larry Moran put it:
But why can't we have our cake and eat it too? Why can't we promote evolution but do it in a scientifically accurate manner? It's abundantly clear to all scientists that the general public knows little about evolution and what little they know is mostly wrong. Do we have to cater to those false impressions?

What effect is it going to have in the long run if we misrepresent science by pretending that evolution is progressive and ladder-like and leads eventually to us—or at least leads to intelligent animals? Is anyone else concerned about this?
Yes, Spore is "just a game", but it's being promoted on the basis of the in-game science, which is what I find troubling. People learn ideas from games and other forms of pop culture, even if they aren't conscious of it, and giving Spore the National Geographic stamp of approval may cause game players to lend more credence to it's depiction of evolution than it deserves.

Watch the promo videos for "How to Build a Better Being"

(Seed Salon video via The Loom)

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