A "Spore" review in Science

John Bohannon (“The Gonzo Scientist”) gives the videogame “Spore” a flunking grade. He sits down four scientists, including Niles Eldredge, to play the game. Surprise! It’s a game, not science!

All species reproduce sexually in Spore. That must have posed quite a challenge for the development team's kiddy police. I can't fault them on this count because the compromise solution made me laugh out loud. Once you return to the nest and hit the "call mate" button, another of your species approaches with a flurry of Valentine hearts. What follows is a soft-porn vision of how cartoon characters come to be. Easy-listening lounge music pipes in as the pair coo and gyrate in slow circles, never touching, before one of them suddenly squats on the nest and--from no apparent orifice--pops out an egg.

OK, that passage was just hilarious. But the rest of the review makes the scientists look like total whiners. For example:

"Clearly, the only thing that determines an organism's morphology in Spore is what the player thinks looks cool," he said. (Before Electronic Arts began filtering it, the Sporepedia was filled with creatures designed to resemble human genitalia.) "And even that doesn't matter because you're ultimately forced to evolve into a terrestrial vertebrate with sentience, which is completely teleological. That's not real science," says Gregory. The "goal" of evolution is not to produce walking, talking vertebrates, because the process is undirected and unintelligent.

Dude, it’s a game. If the game includes progress, it’s playable for longer. If it allows players to choose, it’s playable repeatedly. Yes, it’s kind of cool when the Magic School Bus visits real life dinosaurs, but you don’t need to watch it more than once. If I lay out for a computer game, I want to design my own creatures. And forget the idea (floated by Eldredge) that you should pay some developmental “cost” for changing your body plan. Haven’t these people ever played a role playing game? If big changes cost anything, players would just waste a lot of time getting the points to make the big changes! That’s not fun, it’s tedium.

Ooh, ooh! Or we could get some Chinese gold farmers to do it for us! Now that’s exactly what we want our kids doing, making a buck by selling their Spore points to their classmates. Maybe the nerdy kids can snootily tell them how anti-evolutionary they are.

I haven’t played Spore. But in my day, I loved to play Civilization. Sure, it had only the barest relationship to real culture history. Yes, it depended on obsolete concepts of cultural evolution and overly simplistic concepts of knowledge generation. And yes, it was totally lame that the computer players never honored treaties, that a Bronze Age phalanx could, on occasion, shoot down a stealth bomber, and other stupid things (some addressed in later versions of the game).

I still think references to Civilization are among the best ways to get students to understand how anthropology differs from fiction. But in Bohannan’s assessment, Spore fails to meet the scientific content of Civilization:

In the game Civilization, for example, you learn a great deal about the history of ancient cultures through a series of pop-up mini-articles. When you stick a limb on your creature, wouldn't it be nice to have an optional pop-up window that explains the real (and fascinating) science behind limb evolution?

Well, since the pop-up mini-articles are sort of ludicrous, I have a hard time believing this is going to be an improvement. Maybe what we really need is some Spore blogs?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying go buy this game for your kids, cause I really don’t know. From the descriptions, it seems like the game is really trying to do too much. I mean really, from unicellular organism to interstellar civilization? It’s going to be hard to do one of those well, much less all the levels in between.

But wow does this review fail to tell me anything I would want to know! It’s like I can imagine someone reading the entire thing with a William F. Buckley voice. The idea that Spore isn’t science is a dumb one to be pushing. It’s not science. It’s a game. What we want to know is whether it’s a good game.

(OK, yes, I admit it would be entertaining to hear the words “Pimp my ride” in a William F. Buckley accent. Now, there’s an idea for a game.)

Meanwhile, an accompanying story describes a real outrage: Some of the scientists who appeared in a National Geographic Channel program about the game feel they were tricked by the film’s producers.

[Cliff] Tabin, along with Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, and Michael Levine, a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley, sent Science identical e-mails from the film's producers inviting them to take part. The e-mail describes the documentary as an investigation of "recent discoveries in evolutionary science" with no mention of Spore or Wright. "I thought I was being interviewed for a documentary about evolutionary biology," says Shubin, who appears to be playing the game in the film. "They didn't mention Spore until we were in the middle of [the interview]. I sat there with Will Wright as he fiddled with it," he says. "I don't endorse video games, particularly one that claims to be about evolution."

That’s bad faith on the part of the producers. Similar tactics were used by producers of Expelled!, the anti-evolution documentary that hit theaters earlier this year, to lure evolutionary biologists into appearances in the film. That just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’ve had great experiences working with documentary producers, and I really appreciate the work they do putting science in front of the public in an interesting way. But it is essential to be up front about the topics likely to be covered in a documentary, and how the interviewees fit into a story line.

National Geographic provided this quote for Bohannon’s article:

Ellen Stanley, National Geographic's communications vice president, says there was no intent to mislead the participants. "Our producers were transparent with all of the scientists," she says. The production of such a documentary takes "several months" she adds, and "the idea for the film evolves during that process."

It may be true that the idea for a film evolves over time. But when producers plan who they are going to interview, they already have talked to many people, and have a good idea of what the interviews will say. They begin their shoot with a tentative script. Productions do not waste time or money unnecessarily, and while things can change during editing, they are not arbitrary.

My advice: If you are asked to be in a documentary film, you can ask to see the producer’s outline. Ask who else they are interviewing, and what those people are expected to contribute to the topic. You want to be prepared for the best things to say in your short time on camera, including likely responses to the arguments other scientists will be making. Spend as much time preparing as you would for a research paper. You wouldn’t submit a paper to a journal that you hadn’t looked at before; why would you appear in a documentary that you know nothing about?

None of that advice can protect you from outright fraud, but in the final assessment you have to ask yourself: Is the benefit of communicating my opinion to a broader audience worth the risk, as I understand it? Personally, if I were Electronic Arts and National Geographic, I’d be offering to set up a travel fund for graduate students in each of these scientists’ labs.