'Spore': Does Evolution Really Happen Like That? In the new computer game, players create and control an entire species, directing their evolution from single-celled organisms into an interstellar civilization. An evolutionary biologist discusses the science behind the game with Will Wright, creator of "Spore."
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'Spore': Does Evolution Really Happen Like That?

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'Spore': Does Evolution Really Happen Like That?

'Spore': Does Evolution Really Happen Like That?

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JOE PALCA, host:

OK, and now we're going to change from the real world of biology toward the sort of a simulated world of biology. This month, the creator of those classic computer games "Sim City" and "The Sims" is back with another game. But this time it's not about urban planning or running the lives of simulated people, the game is called "Spore" and it's inspired by science, particularly evolutionary biology. Players start out as tiny microbes swimming in the primordial soup, gobbling up whatever floats by, and then one step at a time they crawl onto land, pick up some adaptations, establish civilizations, blast off into space, and write computer games. Presumably, anyway. Sounds like a computer game both kids and evolutionary biologists would love, well, we'll find out.

Joining me now to talk about "Spore" and the science behind it are my guests, Will Wright, he's chief designer at MAXIS and creator of Spore. He joins us on the phone from California. Welcome to the show Mr. Wright.

Mr. WILL WRIGHT (Chief Designer, MAXIS): Oh thank you very much.

PALCA: And Richard Prum, he's a professor of Evolutionary Biology and chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University. Wait a minute, weren't we just talking to some - yes, we were just talking to somebody at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. Welcome back to the program, Doctor Prum.

Dr. RICHARD PRUM (Chairman, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University): Thank you.

PALCA: So I should've checked, I can make sure you're really at Yale by making sure the weather's the same, but now we'll let you - we'll assume. Anyway, so now we're talking about this new game. And if you'd like to join our conversation, the number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. And Will Wright, I don't know how much you heard, we were just talking with Jim Noonan about the - the evolving - how a human hand evolves from the same set of genes that a chimpanzee has, but obviously the hands in humans are different. Was it this kind of thing, that's kind of thought that was inspiring this game or were you off on a different tack altogether.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I would say that "Spore" the game, was inspired by a little larger view of evolution. We actually wanted to track the origin of life to the evolution of single cell up to multiple flavor(ph) features, then intelligence. And then eventually in the society and technology and all that, so we were kind of stepping way back and looking at the big picture.

PALCA: That's interesting, because, you know, there's this question, I mean evolution, if Darwin is correct or runs by an ordered set of rules but has to start some place. So you posit it on starting point.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, we actually were looking at origin of life theories and decided to go with panspermia which is to say we kind of ponded the problem. To really deal with, what you know what, we've like actually started one of the theories that was kind of in disrepute for many years. But it's getting a little bit more ground now, what's called panspermia, which is that life came to earth from some other place. Possibly on board a comet or meteorite.

PALCA: We got it. Well, we're going to be talking about this whole question of where, well not so much where life came from, but how it goes forward and how you can play it as a game. Because I know I've watched people for decades now, talking about artificial life and their games of a very simplified nature that seemed to emulate some of the things you've created in Spore. But we've got to take a short break now, and we'll be back talking with the creator of "Spore" and also an evolutionary biologist who's played the game and has some thoughts he like to share - is willing to share with us about it. So don't go away, we'll be right back after a short break.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: From NPR News, this is Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Joe Palca. We're talking this hour about the new computer game "Spore" with the game's creator Will Wright and evolutionary biologist Richard Prum. We were saying, Will Wright, you were saying that the game starts with the landing of a living organism on earth from outer space. So that's where we start, what happens after that?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well actually it's not even Earth. It's basically one of a number of plants that you can kind of start playing the game on. But, basically, a little shard comes off this comet, falls into the ocean, cracks open and a single-cell, little creature emerges from it. And that's the players' first avatar, and you're actually driving this little creature around, you're eating, you're surviving, you eventually reproduce. And every generation where you reproduce, a player has to go in and slightly change the design of their species. Which will change the way the way in which they play the game, you know. What they eat, how they behave, whether they are a predator, herbivore, et cetera. And you actually play through many generations of the evolution of your species in the early game.

PALCO: OK. Let me turn to you, Richard Prum, I mean how relevant is this to the way species are thought to have evolved on Earth?

Dr. PRUM: Well, there were some elements in the game that were really fascinating, that I think reflects some important lessons about evolutionary biology. The first one was the idea of contingency, when you start the game and you open up the first screen you get says, depending on what the decisions you make now could really change your evolutionary outcome. And that's a very sophisticated idea, it's one that's really fundamental to evolutionary process.

PALCA: Mm hmm.

Dr. PRUM: The other is the idea of modularity, most of organism or complex evolutionary are - complex bodies - are built with modular parts. Digits are attached to hands, which are attached to arms, and limbs, and fins, et cetera. And so eyes can be either compound or single, they can be on stalk. And the game captures very well that some of the parts of the body are highly modular. When you're helping to create novelty in your organism, you can choose among these. And that sort of, that reflects an important aspect of evolution of biology.

PALCA: Now we were just talking with Jim Noonan about, you know, how the human hand evolved and one of the things that came up in that discussion was this notion, the difference between genes that make concrete things versus other bits of DNA that are embracing what he calls regulatory sequences or a things that turn on and off genes. Is there any analog to that in this game?

Dr. PRUM: Well, you have to say that the way the mechanism of, you know, sexual reproduction and development and novelty in organisms that are designed in the game is really a cart, you know, very much a cartoon and not even reflecting the actual process. And I have no idea how close they were trying to get, but in this case, it's nothing like, you know, real evolution in terms of mechanism that gives rise to novelty. So for example when you're reproducing, you can trade in body parts for new parts. You can, through experience, you can say, oh, you know those horns looked really effective on that other creature that I encountered. I'm going to go get some. And if you're lucky enough, you could find them and you can trade in your fins or your flagella for horns once you get onto land. And of course that's not the way evolution works.

PALCA: No, supposedly not.

Dr. PRUM: And one of the aspects that's really missing for the game is population, so when you become purple and have new horns or new limbs, once you emerge, your whole species is suddenly exactly like that. And of course evolutionary novelties comes from - arise from mutations, which are in a single individual. And then either have some evolutionary fate, either they evolve to be more broadly represented in the population, ultimately fixed in the population and the species may evolve.

PALCA: Right. So, since he's here, why don't we just ask Will Wright. I mean this - I presume you were making a game, not a model of evolutionary biology.

Mr. WRIGHT: Exactly, I mean Richard's quite right in pointing out these things where, you know, we take tremendous liberties down at the local level. We're not even really dealing with genetics, you know, per se. We're more focused on the overall story that life, you know, kind of increases diversity over time, over millions of generations. You know, billions of years. You know, to really simulate that stuff and I've done simulations like that. You really need very large population, in the tens of thousands. You know, going over many generations, you know, thousands or millions of generations, to really replicate, you know the process of evolution.

So what we're really doing here is we're trying to take some of the macro story of evolution, how organisms change overtime in response to their environment. And kind of mesh that with, you know, we call the player narrative. You know, how do we engage the player's imaginations so they feel like they're part of this. They get excited about it, stay motivated playing the game. So we're definitely dealing with, you know, a huge amount of the decisions we make were for game designs, game play reasons. You know as opposed to try to recreate real science.

PALCA: Got it. All right, well let's take some calls now. Our number is 800-989-TALK, and let's go to Charlie in Silver Spring, Maryland. Charlie, welcome to Science Friday.

CHARLIE (Caller): Hi, can you hear me?

PALCA: Yeah.

CHARLIE: I'm a teacher in Silver Spring, Maryland. I teach biology. And I was wondering if this game would be something that would be suitable for the classroom. Did it take a long time like some of these SIMS games, it did take weeks and weeks or is that something I could do in front of the classroom in a few days to sort of get across to them some of the concepts in biology about evolution that we teach?

PALCA: Interesting. What do you think about that - well, first of all, Wright?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I think, you know, there's kind of the evolution portion on the game. Both later on the game, when they go to that space stage, you're actually terra forming entire planets. And there's a simple ecosystem model, where you're trying to get kind of the temperature of the planet correct in the atmosphere and then you bring in plant species that can support herbivores, you know, can support carnivores and so on. I think it might be more useful to think about teaching ecology with kind of this toy planet, that you kind of experiment with. That might be, kind of - fit into a lesson plan a little bit more cleanly. Although you can certainly kind of tell the story about evolution I think, you know, using the game.

PALCA: What about you, Richard Prum, do you see a teaching tool here at all?

Dr. PRUM: Definitely. I think the game is very engaging, it's really fun. And I think that would be sort of responsible back story on what part what part is a cartoon and what parts are relevant. There could be some interesting exercises done with the planet, I mean when my kids and I were both playing on the same computer, before it was officially released, and they visited my planet and created a new creature, and then they said, hey, we ran it to you, on our planet. Right? So you could have different groups within a classroom, creating organisms that would be on the same planet and they would interact ecologically and create some opportunities for understanding biological processing.

PALCA: Yeah, sounds good. All right let's take another call now and go to Michael in San Francisco. Michael, welcome to Science Friday.

MICHAEL (Caller): Thank you. I'm 52 and although I'm very computer-literate. I have never played a computer game. Am I going to be able to pick this up easily? Do I need to find a 10-year-old and make sense of it?

Dr. PRUM: Well, I'm a good test example because I've never played a computer game before either. And so when I got this assignment, I thought it would be a fun opportunity to try. And you know, I'd learned new things about gaming. My kids laughed at me, but it was very understandable, and it was good fun.

PALCA: OK. Thanks for that call. How about going to Vanessa, in Lee Summit, Missouri. Welcome to the program, Vanessa.

VANESSA (Caller): Hi. I was actually wondering what great gaming platforms it will be on?

PALCA: Good question. I'm sure Will Wright can answer that one for us.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, we just released the version on the PC and the Macintosh. We have a so much simpler version on the Nintendo DS. And one is just the cell phase of the game on the iPhone. But we'll be releasing other platforms in the future, but right now that's what on the market.

PALCA: How much do we have to pay for this?

Mr. WRIGHT: It's about fifty dollars for the PC version, more or less for the others.

PALCA: Is there - I was just, a friend of mine was in the Apple store and was buying a computer and my kids immediately went over to one of that computers there and, they must have some preliminary version, on the Apples that they have in the store anyway. Because I recognized some of the creatures that they were creating while we were standing, waiting for my friend to make his purchase.

Mr. WRIGHT: We also released a version of just the creature creation portion about two months ago. There's a free download. You can go to our web site spore.com. and download a limited version of that, and that was on the Macintosh as well, so that's probably what you saw.

PALCA: OK, interesting. Let's take another call now, and go to Chris in Tallahassee, Florida. Chris, welcome to Science Friday.

CHRIS (Caller): Great. Hey, thanks. So I was wondering - the game is dealing with evolution and adaptability over time. You know I was wondering if Will Wright is planning on using the kind of feedback that he gets from the game as it's being played to come out with different patches or different versions, updates the way that he did with the SIMS or what kind of adaptability he's going to use as a game designer in terms of what the public is getting as a product.

PALCA: Thanks for that, Chris.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, it's for the (unintelligible) and that most of the stuff that you encounter in Spore was actually made by other players as they were playing. Every time he makes something in the game it gets pulled up to our server and it's used to basically populate everybody else's world. So, we've actually been studying what the players have been making, and categorizing them and this is, you know, the game is (unintelligible) game designer to an anthropologist, and I spend a lot of time studying what the players are doing with the game. And at this point the players are going to, you know very much drive what directions we go with this game into the future, you know, the expansions, sequels, etcetera, are very much going to be determined by what we see the players wanting to do, trying to do within the game world.

PALCA: And so, I mean, it's interesting that you're actually using this, I mean when you say anthropologist, you're thinking this is a sort of a practical anthropology or are you doing this in an academic sense?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, in the sense that we end up studying the players and the communities that they build. We find out what's motivating them, what sort of social dynamics are going on between the players, because a lot of what's going on isn't just them playing against the game, but it's them engaging with each other because we have a certain number of players that are very creative, other ones can kind of subscribe to their creativity, you know, to a buddy list or collections, things we have in the game. And so are these interesting dynamics that happen and some sense what we're doing is we're harvesting the creativity of minds of players and then redistributing that.

We found the computers, you know, we've been trying to teach computers AI for years but we found that they are actually much better at harvesting human intelligence. If you look at Google search results, that's really what it's doing, and we're doing the same thing with creativity in this game. We're trying to harvest creativity with lots of players and redistribute it. And so, they're really in some sense our co developers now.

PALCA: Interesting. Let's take another call now from Tom in Durum, North Carolina. Tom, welcome to Science Friday.

TOM (Caller): Thank you. I have a question for Will which is, because people are going to be inevitably learning from this game about evolution, did you feel responsibility to be true to reality? And also for Richard, on the same note, how is their game changing the conversation about evolution? Thank you.

PALCA: OK. Thanks for that. Two interesting questions.

Mr. WRIGHT: OK. Well, you know what I found with games is actually is about - I'm not that interested in educating people with games. I'm much more interested in motivating and inspiring them with games. I think games, you know, are these kind of toys that kind of capture imagination, get you interested in the subject. If you can get a kid interested in the subject, they'll go learn, there are plenty of opportunities, you know, and you talked about scientist and they always have this one story about what got them into science. You know, it might be (unintelligible) Wilson describing digging up bugs bin his backyard or something else but there was only like one seminal moment where they become a scientist, and from that point on they looked at the world in a different way, and so I'm much more interested, I think, in doing that and kind of sparking that motivation, than in, pouring you know facts about evolution into a kid's head.

PALCA: And Richard from yours - he was asking whether this is changing the debate or the discussion at all in evolutionary biology?

Dr. PRUM: I think we're hoping that the game will produce lots of young users who'd become interested in the actual science of evolutionary biology. The history of life on this planet and - is got to be one of the most complicated and fascinating scientific questions and much more complicated than the dynamics of the game, and many of us have dedicated our whole life to studying it, and it's a truly worthy and fascinating question if the game inspires people to think about that and that'll be great thing.

PALCA: We're talking with Will Wright and that was Richard Prum who was just speaking about the game Spore. I'm Joe Palca, and this is Talk of The Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: Let's take another call now and go to Noah in Richmond, Virginia. Noah, welcome to Science Friday.

NOAH (Caller): Thank you very much. I actually - I have a question, I guess, regarding the philosophy of the game and I don't know if this really the right forum for it, but I consider evolution and the question of life to be very fascinating. Will Wright, did you think about the direction of the player in the game - the players purpose? Because as I understand it, you play as individuals of the species, but you also choose evolutionary traits that they gain. So, I mean in choosing traits at the game, you're sort of selecting for them, it's kind of natural selection, but in playing members of the species you're not really acting as, you know, a god figure, you're acting as the individual. So, are you representing the collective will of species or is it a god game? And I'll take my question off the air.

PALCA: OK. Thank you very much. Interesting. A god game. Oh, my.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, interesting the early prototypes of the game we in fact did have natural selection of those random mutations of whatever species you happen to have, and you got to pick one mutation. So, we found the players just were not emotionally engaged by that, you know, it's so - we kind of justified it as, you know, you were basically playing off the life cycle of one member of your species and basically determining the fitness of your that species by how well you play up that life cycle. If you designed a really able character, then it's easier for you to get back in the area(ph) and reproduce and go to the next generation. You might die and you don't have to actually go back and take a different path.

We don't actually force the player towards anything, towards intelligence or, you know, stronger, faster, they can stay, you know, basically a slug if they want to, but then they're not going to get any further in the game. So, pretty much it's the player's choice to advance the character up to intelligence, at which point the game goes to the next phase. We are playing a tribal society, but you know, we are definitely taking a lot of liberties, but it was primarily to get the player emotionally engaged in the success of your species going forward.

PALCA: And how far do you go? When does it end? Is there a point when you reach the end and you spin off to the next game?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, there's really no win, I mean at some point you actually get a high levels of technology and move on the space and you start exploring the entire galaxy. It was a point you're encountering other whole worlds that were player created by other players. We have a lot of goal structures at that level, but that's, you know, pretty much the last phase of the game. It's when you go out exploring the galaxy.

PALCA: OK. Well, I guess I've had to ask just because everybody in the gaming world would be wanting me to - is there something else that we should be anticipating from you?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, there are other I do some working on, they're not Spore, but, you know, I think Spore is going to have probably a lot of interesting expansions as well, you know, both towards the life evolution science side of it and towards the creative tools that we give the players to make the stuff.

PALCA: All right. Well, we're out of time, but thank you very much. That was Will Wright, he's the Chief designer at MAXIS and creator of Spore, and Richard Prum. He's a professor of Evolutionary Biology and chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Thanks to both of you for joining me today.

Dr. PRUM: Thank you.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you.

PALCA: And when we come back we'll be talking about well, it's an important subject, it's really is in many different dimensions, but we're talking about yeast and one of the fine things it can do for humanity and that's make lager beer. So, stick around we'll talk about where the yeast came from, how it got to be, and maybe where it's going. So, we'll be back after a short break.

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