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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Evolution, Intelligent Design, and a Dead Horse

The newly-released game Spore allows you to create creatures that start at a protozoan level - and then, as you progress through a series of stages, you evolve into creatures that have functioning societies (and even, ultimately, space travel). I haven't played it myself, but there's a gameplay demo here.

The "evolution" in the game is driven by a combination of psuedo-Darwinian precepts and intelligent design -- with the gamer being the Intelligent Designer. There's a good article by Luke O'Brien in Slate Magazine about the tension between evolution and ID in the game. Chances are I'll assign it to the Entertainment Technology class -- it does a good job of pointing out that gaming systems are also ideological systems. There's a link in that article, to a further article by an ID advocate who thinks that Spore helps to refute objections against ID. It's a curious approach -- to use a fiction to buttress something the writer wants to set as fact. His second point -- that clumsy design can also be design, and therefore the clumsiness that can be seen in biological structures is not a refutation of the idea of a designer -- hardly seems reassuring. If Intelligent Design implies a designer that is either capricious or incompetent, the kind of theology it would point to would be a fairly terrifying one.

O'Brien briefly touches on the question: what would Spore look like if it did actually attempt to follow Darwinian logic more accurately? Of course, the whole creature designing layer would have to be stripped out, and the gamer would have less control over the development of their creature, as random mutation would be added to the mix. You could be a participant in the world, but not a God. Which is probably antithetical to the notion of gaming itself. Part of the appeal of games is to give us a world we have some degree of control over: a portable universe that is bounded by rules that can be understood. Games give us fun, diversion, stimulation -- but most fundamentally, they give us the illusion of mastery.

A brilliant detail of Spore is that it apparently lets you upload gameplay directly to youtube -- there are already numerous clips of animals generated via Spore's "Creature Creator," which is available free as a kind of teaser for the game. The creature in the clip above, "Dead Horse on Crossbar," is a pretty amazing thing. Made by users calling themselves vorneus and Reflex, it strikes me as the sort of thing that might've appeared if Samuel Beckett had been a plush animal designer.

(apologies to J. for the post title)

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