Sunday, October 5, 2008

Theory of Evolution in Computer Games

Greg’s posting on the evolution simulator reminded me of the latest game from Will Wright, the creator of SimCity. The new game called Spore and was just released last month by Electronic Arts.Spore is described in the product documentation as

“[Spore is] your own personal universe. In this universe, you can create and evolve life, establish tribes, build civilizations, and even sculpt entire worlds.”

I was intrigued enough to buy it ($45) and start building my universe. The Spore universe is made up of five stages, each allegedly corresponding to “a stage of evolution: Cell, Creature, Tribal, Civilization, and Space."

Clearly these stages were made up as part of the game and appear to be mishmash of evolutionary concepts. For example, the process of becoming a Creature (evolved being) simply involves accumulating points during the Cellular stage by eating available vegetation or other organisms. Apparently, adaptability and natural selection have nothing to do with evolution!

Each stage presents different challenges and goals. The player begins life as a tiny cell, then progresses through the other stages on their journey.

Borrowing from theories on the origin of life on earth, life in Spore starts by hitching a ride to the newly named planet on the tail of a meteor.

Again, Spore makes vague references to the planetary conditions favorable to life, “Fortunately the conditions on the planet are just right for an explosion of life in the primordial soup.”

But the main connection to evolution in Spore seems to be the emphasis on competition and survival:

“Unfortunately for you, that explosion means there’s a lot of competition to see which species is going to rule the water.”

This then seems to be the core of the “evolutionary” mechanism in Spore:

“And the cutthroat competition doesn’t stop once you evolve onto land! Through each of the five stages in Spore it’s survival of the fittest as you try to adapt your species to stay one step, one tool, one weapon ahead of the others. It’s up to you whether your creature will play nice or rough as it advances and evolves. Will your simple amoeba go on to rule the galaxy?”

Spore may be about creating beings and progressing through stages of “life” but it has no basis in the theory of evolution. It borrows from evolutionary concepts but doesn’t simulate real evolutionary mechanisms in any meaningful way.

Spore is the most recent “evolutionary” game but it’s certainly not the only one. E.V.O: Search for Eden, is another game from a Nintendo that incorporates evolutionary concepts. E.V.O is described as a role playing game, where players do battle with enemies and:

“By eating defeated enemies, players gain "Evolution points" that can be used to modify the creature they are playing as. These improvements include bigger jaws, various armors, horns, fins, longer neck, better jumping, swimming ability, flying ability and more. By evolving, your character gains more hit points, greater speed, stronger attacks, and even certain special abilities such as flight.”

The real problem, if you will, with E.V.O is the storyline, which according to Wikipedia ( is a combination of creation mythology and Theistic Evolution.

In using the evolutionary concepts with creation mythology, quasi-religious and quasi-scientific ideas are merged:

“The player takes the role of one of many billions of life-forms created by Gaia, the nurturing and benevolent daughter of Sol, the Sun. Among the creatures known as "life", there is a competition to evolve, and the greatest life-form will eventually be granted the privilege of entering the Garden of Eden and becoming the husband and partner of Gaia." (Wikipedia)

I have no issue with fantasy role playing games – I rather enjoy them. However, I’m disappointed that in the popular imagination, evolution is reduced to survival of the fittest in the crudest manner and players are granted god-like powers to evolve their creations instead of simulating something more elegant like natural selection.

-Marta Cervantes

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