Miércoles 17 de Septiembre de 2008, Ip nº 247

The creation simulation
Por Margaret Robertson

Imagine a picture of a man sitting, on a sunny day, picnicking on a blanket. Now zoom out tenfold, to see the park he's sitting in. Then tenfold again, and again and again, till you can see the whole country, the whole planet, the whole solar system, the whole galaxy, a whole host of galaxies. Now imagine one last zoom, which pulls back to reveal that we're looking not at the universe, but at a computer screen. Welcome to Spore, one of the most ambitious and anticipated video games of all time.

Will Wright isn't an old man — his 24-year career as a game designer has so far produced the bestselling PC series of all time, The Sims, alongside many other much-loved projects — but it's no great risk to say Spore is his magnum opus. It's moved on from its original title of "SimEverything," but that remains the snappiest way to describe it. It's a universe in a box: a playful, unpredictable dynamic representation of everything we are, everything we were, and everything we might become.
The science in Spore can be seen as the offspring of two seminal ideas: Powers of Ten, a 1977 documentary film by Ray and Charles Eames that first showed viewers the zooming perspective of the universe described above, and the Drake Equation, a controversial attempt by the astrobiologist Frank Drake to quantify the prevalence of intelligence in our galaxy. "If you look at the terms of his equation," begins Wright, "he's trying to estimate how many intelligences there are out there — how many stars times how many planets times what proportion of those might have life, times what proportion of those might become intelligent — but those terms end up spanning all these different scales, from physics to chemistry and biology, all the way up to what we know as sociology and culture. So in some ways, Drake's equation is a really interesting spine along which to attach all the other sciences."
Spore, then, was conceived as the ultimate science project —  a laboratory in which a player could experiment with the parameters that determine the emergence of intelligent life. You're given a star system that can support life, and you first meet your creature as one blob among millions in the primordial soup. You tend to it as it eats and breeds, judiciously tweaking its DNA to give it the advantage over its competitors. As it drags itself onto land, you shape its form, adding legs, teeth, tails, and claws. When population density builds up, you manage group dynamics, governing the culture that starts to emerge as intelligence develops. Then, as cities are built, wars are fought, and resources depleted, you help construct a successful space program. Travelling to new planets and solar systems gives you the chance to spread life elsewhere, seeking to find or recreate on other worlds the same hospitable conditions which your own species benefited from all those generations ago.

Tackling these vast ideas meant the Spore team had to start by doing its homework. Wright handpicked team members with a natural enthusiasm for science, then had them read books by science luminaries like Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson. For years this tight-knit team developed an entirely new universe. "We spent a fair amount of time prototyping galactic dynamics and the way galactic arms are formed," recalls Wright, "and at the other end of the scale, we did a lot of prototyping around the origin of life — around auto-catalytic sets which were fun if you're a chemistry geek, but if you weren't into chemistry were totally obtuse."
This was Spore's central problem: Could the game be both scientifically accurate and fun? The prototyping teams were becoming lost in their scientific interests. Chaim Gingold, a team member who started as an intern and went on to help design the game's content creation tools, recalls a summer spent playing with pattern language and cellular automata: "It was just about being engaged with the universe as a set of systems, and being able to build toys that manifested our fascination with these systems and our love for them." But from within this explosion of experimental enthusiasm came an unexpected warning voice. Spore's resident uber-geek and artificial intelligence expert Chris Hecker was having strong misgivings about how appealing all this hard science would be to the wider world. "I was the founding member of the 'cute' team," he says with pride. "Ocean [Quigley, Spore's art director] and Will were really the founding members of the 'science' team. Ocean would make the cell game look exactly like a petri dish with all these to-scale animals and Will would say, 'That's the greatest thing I've ever seen!' and some of us were thinking, 'I'm not sure about that.'"
Soon rival camps had formed. New recruits were taken out to lunch and covertly probed to discover where their natural leanings were. Quigley's microscopically accurate concept drawings were vandalized with stuck-on googly eyes; there were suggestions that it might be cool if the creatures wore sneakers. It might have been painful for the founding members of the science team, but Quigley acknowledges the need for compromise. "From a single-celled organism through the four-and-a-half-billion year history of life on Earth to a self-projected future where we are gallivanting around the stars? I mean, it is so absurdly vast, so radically outside of any scale that people can really empathize with, we knew we had to turn it into a toy."

This challenge — of making hard science approachable — is one that similarly inspired games have faced since the earliest implementations in 1970 of John Conway's genre-defining Game of Life, but not all designers found Spore's compromises necessary. Steve Grand, who made the big sim-life hit of the 1990s, Creatures, also faced the task of reconciling the limited behavioral range of virtual life-forms with the advanced expectations of players. "There are two ways to tackle this problem," Grand says. "Try to make the behavior look more real, or stop lying to people. As far as I can tell, Spore takes the former approach, to gently and quite openly fool the user into thinking she's engaging with real living things, while Creatures took the latter — I did my best not to fool anyone, even if that meant the results weren't so playable."
Spore's decision — to preserve the illusion of life at the expense of the actual facts of life — made for some substantial casualties. First to go in the cute-versus-science war were the extreme ends of the scale — galaxy formation and originsof- life simulation — dismissed as being too abstract and dissipated. Next, small and then big laws were shattered and remade. Wright's determination to represent faster-than-light travel as impossible crumbled in the face of making the spacefaring section of the game enjoyable. Evolution, despite his staunch Darwinism, became a massively telescoped process that depended on the external, deliberate interventions of the players. And so, instead of becoming the ultimate science project, Spore gradually became the ultimate game.
The snag is that Spore didn't just jettison half its science — it replaced it with systems and ideas that run the risk of being actively misleading. Scientists brought in to evaluate the game for potential education projects recoiled as it became increasingly evident that the game broke many more scientific laws than it obeyed. Those unwilling to comment publicly speak privately of grave concerns about a game which seems to further the idea of intelligent design under the badge of science, and they bristle at its willingness to use words like "evolution" and "mutation" in entirely misleading ways.
Interestingly, though, it may be the concessions made to the cute camp that best protect Spore against accusations of being scientifically inaccurate. The tiny planets and multilimbed creatures give out a very strong message that this isn't quite our world, so why should it be playing by our rules? For Grand, this differentiation was a core part of what made his Creatures valuable. "Their genes are not like our genes; their brains are not like our brains; but the principles are similar and so, like the abstraction of chess, they provide good models for understanding the real thing."

Wright too believes strongly that to get bogged down in specific factual errors is to miss Spore's broader potential to teach scientific principles — to communicate concepts like the very small and the very slow. "Since you're actually travelling through the evolution of this organism from very simple to very complex and intelligent, the meta-message here is that life evolves," he maintains. It may sound like a convenient excuse from a designer who's had to compromise his vision to meet a commercial agenda, but those experienced in how the public responds to portrayals of science back up Wright's instincts. Stephen Webster, a science communications expert at Imperial College, London, answers unequivocally when asked if he feels Spore could further muddy waters already clouded with ignorance and misinformation: "No, I don't, and I'll tell you why. My experience of working with science and communication is that people separate quite clearly one domain of their life from another. These games work not because people think they're teaching them science, but because you can do the manipulation... You can see the results from what you do." It's this latter element which may make Spore much more useful as an educational tool than its omissions and inventions might suggest. "No one feels involved in evolution," says Webster. "It's hard to imagine evolution, and it's very hard to see, because of the lengths of time involved. When people talk about evolution happening in front of your nose, they're usually talking about bacteria — it's not something you can see."
Intriguingly, however, the real common ground between Spore and Creatures — and indeed between them and many other computer games — may not be that they teach or visualize scientific fact, but that they teach scientific thinking itself. Progress in many games depends on a cycle of observation, theorizing, and experimentation, and Spore is no different. The whole game is a giant consequence generator, and scientists like Webster feel this is where much of Spore's value is to be found. "There's a degree of reasoning. You're trying to make changes that you think will affect the future — isolating factors, changing one thing, keeping others the same, and seeing what happens. This is often how science is described, and there is an element of the scientific method in all of that."
And yet there is hard science in Spore, not in its distorted mirroring of our own natural world, but in the systems that emerged as the game itself evolved. Inspired by Wright's love for the theory of panspermia, the notion that life can be "seeded" from space, each Spore galaxy is populated not by creatures designed by the game's creative team, but by animals, plants, buildings, and vehicles made by players within the game's extraordinarily flexible editing tools. These creations automatically pollinate from computer to computer, and in order to facilitate this spread, the team had to find a way to let the creations replicate themselves. They ended up with a system that echoes how novel traits emerge via natural selection. Each image of a creature contains, embedded in the file itself, the data for its recreation. And recreate they do —  when the creature creator tool was released to promote the game earlier this year it took just 18 days for players to match the 1.6 million species known on Earth, and they wasted no time comparing and trading their handiwork. Just as in the real world, environmental constraints started to determine which of these creatures are the fittest — which, in Spore's universe, means which are the most popular. For game designer Frank Lantz, it's this evolving ecosystem that is the perfect example of the game's ability to be science rather than teach science. Initially, it was living, bouncing models of the human reproductive organs that proved wildly popular — a trend quickly dubbed "Spornography."

"Here's a game — supposedly about evolution — in which sexual reproduction is tastefully absent," says Lantz. "And then as soon as the editor comes out, there's this enormous Cambrian Explosion, a Burgess Shale of digital erotica. And then those images were really good at reproducing themselves as players sent links and images around to each other. So, it turns out that sex is good at reproducing itself. How funny and ironic is that?"
This emerging ecology is the final part of Spore's scientific odyssey. The startling reality of Spore is that, while it sells itself as a laboratory in a box, the actual subjects of the experiment aren't the virtual creatures, but the real players. As in previous Wright games, the team will be able to collect detailed data on what the players create, what they do, and how they play. Early trends are already emerging from prerelease testing — female players tend to prefer non-aggressive methods of conquest (often cultural competitions relying on singing and dancing displays), while male players are redder in tooth and claw — but once the game is released it will provide real insight into how people want to shape the world around them, and on how they relate to synthetic life-forms.
Wright sees this aspect of Spore as a key building block in the science of the future. "If you look at things like social intelligences, a lot of those are going to be dedicated to understanding the other social systems that surround them. And so, if you have an AI and it's interacting with humans, a big part of its model is going to be about how humans behave. I think that the early models we're building in these games will be the starting point for the models that computers will use to understand us. We're already describing ourselves to what will become the future AI."
It's the potential Spore has to evolve over current and future incarnations into a massive dataset of billions of human interactions and decisions that may make the game a target for scientific research rather than a reflection of it. "I spend a lot of time observing The Sims community," says Wright, "where we actually embed data in each saved game, so we can do data analysis of how people played their game... We're going to be doing the same thing with Spore. We're tracking the telemetry, as we call it, of what the players are doing in the game, and that's amazing — that players are exploring, and we can actually build a computational map of the possibility space and statistically populate it with how players are spending their time." It isn't clear how much access Electronic Arts (EA), the game's publisher, will give the world to this digital survey of human instinct, but it's immediately apparent how valuable it could be as a raw input for any artificial system struggling to form an understanding of our priorities and preferences.
Unsurprisingly, for a man who set out to "Sim" everything, the potential for his game to turn the entire world into a laboratory isn't quite enough to sate his ambition. Wright is clearly fascinated by the possibilities the further future holds, and for what Spore may end up telling us about humanity's relationship with nature. "To go a bit further into the intelligent design issue," he says, "I don't reject it outright. I don't think there's any evidence on Earth indicating there was any designer involved here, but if we're talking about it in the sense of the designers we might one day become, then I'm open to that. If we're talking about designed organisms, or even potentially designed universes, I can almost imagine it being in the realm of human aspiration. Actually, we're starting right now, when we're custom designing organisms from scratch."
In fact, it's this line of thinking that may resolve the apparent tension behind Spore's scientific inspirations but unscientific implementation. This isn't a game for re-educating the intelligent design proponents of the present; it's a game for inspiring the intelligent designers of the future. Because, of course, if you zoom back one more level from Spore and the computer screen which hosts it, what do you see? Yourself.


  08/09/2008. Seed Magazine.


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