Sunday, September 14, 2008

Spore Sports

Like many households this week in which the much-anticipated game Spore has arrived, there's been nonstop creature-creation in our home on one of the laptop PCs, sometimes -- as this photo shows -- until the wee hours of the night.

It's certainly worth asking, as Ian Bogost has, "Is Spore for Everyone?", but to me there are at least two interesting pedagogical aspects to the game: what it teaches about science and what it teaches about international relations.

What does Spore teach about evolution? What does it mean to equate leveling up with evolving?

At a time when fewer Americans believe in the theory of evolution than any other time since my birth, it is interesting that EA has decided to release this high-profile big-budget game, which transports a potential political agenda. Of course, the worldwide market for the game would not be affected by the rising attachment to creationism among citizens of the United States. Phrases like "then human beings evolved" seem to appear as uncontested factual statements in public discourses in French, German, and Japanese and among the denizens of other English-speaking countries. Yet the company might be interested in capitalizing on possible controversy to move units, although the seeming right-wing blog AntiSpore: Resisting EA's War on Creationism was recently revealed to be a hoax.

Slate magazine recently ran a long piece about "Spore's Intelligent Designer" that argues that the politics of Spore's creator reflect both progressive and reactionary philosophies ant that the game may not necessarily be the book to Darwinians that it might initially seem to be, since many advocates for Intelligent Design have already latched upon the game.

Some pro-I.D. groups have already targeted Spore as a possible eduational vehicle. "It raises a lot of the questions we've been thinking about," Casey Luskin of the Intelligent Design Evolution and Awareness Center told me three months ago. "It has interesting pro-I.D. implications. ... I know of at least two video-game developers affiliated with this who are pro-I.D." Luskin wouldn't tell me who those developers were, but he did recently weigh in on the Discovery Institute's blog to list five reasons why Spore will destroy common objections to intelligent design. His conclusion: "Spore is a video game that is intelligently designed to allow users to create fantasy worlds where evolution really can take place."

The author also argues that the actual science of the game does little to teach the principles of the evolution of distinct species: not only does the game make "no room for random mutation, the real source of differentiation," but also "natural selection plays only a minor role." Certainly, I see certain Lamarckian tendencies in the game, although it does work against the fallacy of gradualism with its panoramas of punctuated equilibrium characterized by sudden shifts and massive extinctions.

As someone who has taught the Origin of Species, it seems that that little is also done with that tricky chapter on sexual selection, which caused such a problem for Darwin the Victorian patriarch who focused on the combat between males where survival of the fittest would depend on superior strength and obviously adaptive traits, and yet -- as a specialist in birds -- he could not ignore the role of female preference for particular kinds of mates, some with features that would seem to make them more likely to be subject to predators or less equipped for hunting and gathering.

(It is interesting that the religious right doesn't appear yet to be bothering itself about the number of phallic creatures that are possible to generate with the software and the plethora of sexual organs frolicking about computer screens with their gorgeous procedural animation. I personally would prefer to make one of these anti-DRM critters.)

How does Spore depict the exploitation of foreign peoples and their material resources?

As Celia Pearce points out, games like Civilization and Age of Empires often could be described as "sanitized colonialism" or "Disneyfied imperialism" in which the conquest of supposedly inferior people always maximizes your chances for success in the game and rarely produces any blowback. In contrast, players who follow the path of the warmonger in Spore often find themselves meeting unexpected forms of postcolonial resistance or unanticipated systemic failures as they attempt to subjugate others and cart away their valuable spices and precious goods.

Pearce and I are actually working on the preliminary stages of a research project about ideologies of war in videogames that should bring together her scholarship on player communities and group ideologies and my work in the Humanities Core Course teaching about the literature, philosophy, and history of colonialism and globalization. Possible topics for considering how these attitudes toward war and combat in game worlds are formulated include just war doctrine, rules of engagement, the definition of war crimes, preventative war theory, etc. I'll be presenting some of this work in a PAMLA session on "Violence and Representation: Epistemologies of War in Philosophy, Fiction, and Film" in November.

(Thanks to Robert Tercek for pointing out the link to the piece. I haven't yet been able to play the game for myself for any extended period, so I'd be interested in exploring the supposed emphasis on religious practices in the game -- something my own kids seem to be ignoring -- which the article describes as well.)

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