Friday, October 24, 2008

Is the Evolution in Spore at all Realistic? Biologists Say 'No'

Imagine you could design your own primitive creature, then watch it change as it produces generation after generation of offspring. Eventually your creation becomes a spacefaring race and heads for the stars. That's pretty much the premise of the game Spore: you create a creature that "evolves" and interact with other players' creations. It's a pretty nifty-sounding idea, but does the game play have any resemblance to actual evolution? Spore creator Will Wright - and National Geographic - would certainly like you to think so.

But what do actual biologists think? John Bohannon "The Gonzo Scientist" played Spore with a team of scientists and reported on their experience in Science. Two evolutionary biologists - T. Ryan Gregory of the University of Guelph and Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History - rated the "Cell" and "Creature" stages of the game. The "Cell" stage fared OK science-wise, but the "Creature" stage got a poor review:
"The problem is that the game features virtually none of the key ingredients of evolution as we understand it," says Gregory. "There's no shared common descent between species, since every single creature in Spore can trace its lineage back to a different single-celled organism that arrives from space." Spore also lacks biological variation. "When you run into other members of your species, they are always identical clones of you." Nor does it have natural selection. "There are no consequences for dying, since you just reappear at your nest." Your organism does evolve, says Gregory, "in the sense that it changes over time, but it really has no bearing on how things evolve in the real world."
[. . . ]
You might think that Spore's fatal flaw would be that it supports intelligent design rather than Darwinian evolution. (That's what I initially thought.) But it turns out to be not even that interesting. "Spore is essentially a very impressive, entertaining, and elaborate Mr. Potato Head that uses the language of evolution but none of the major principles," conclude Gregory and Eldredge.
Bohannon has created a page at the Spaceguild Wiki that gives a more detailed report card of Spore's science. If it were a college student, it would have flunked out long ago:
Organismic biology: D-
  • Cell biology: D
  • Genetics: F
  • Development and reproduction: D
Evolutionary processes: F
  • Evolution as fact: B
  • Mutation and variation: F
  • Natural selection: F
  • Sexual selection: F
  • Genetic drift: F
  • Historical contingency: D
  • Constraints: D
  • Evolutionary history: D
So overall pretty awful. Gregory and Eldredge also contributed a detailed explanation of why they gave Spore such poor grades for its depiction of evolution.

You may be asking yourself, why does this matter? It's only a game, right? I actually don't think it would matter much at all, if it weren't being marketed as educational.
The game's makers are clearly aiming for the highly lucrative family and education markets. "Since the game's release we've received a lot of interest from various schools and universities around the world," a Spore spokesperson wrote me in an e-mail. "So that's a good sign that there's a lot of interest in [the] academic/education community."
I would hope that any adult that bought Spore with an eye to education would use it as a way to initiate discussion of the actual science of evolution, but I suspect that that doesn't happen very often. Instead parents will buy the game and just hand it to their kids, assuming it has some educational value. And while it may keep kids entertained, they won't end up knowing any more about biology than they did before they started. Hopefully the inaccurate use of biology terms and concepts within the game won't end up confusing them when they do learn about real science.

(via The Loom)

Image: Punky Quillibra, the creature created by evolutionary biologists T. Ryan Gregory and Niles Eldredge. They were able to change every component of Punky's body in a single generation, a game feature that is totally unlike evolution.

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1 comment:

Sean Craven said...

It would be interesting to hear the argument for Spore being educational -- it sounded interesting at first but once it came out it was pretty clear that it wasn't anything but a cool video game. One that I'm avoiding due to a desire not to waste my entire life on it.

(You know who wrote dialog for Spore? Walter Jon Williams!)

I've always wondered about the possibility of using a set of algorithms modeled on pencil-and-paper role-playing games to simulate evolutionary processes. Something you could set up and just leave it to run for a while as your digital organisms bred and died...

If I had any inclination toward computer coding at all I'd have probably made an attempt at that a while ago.