New over the news tickers today is the suggestion that failed Maxis “masterpiece” Spore, released to tepid reviews but hella sales in early September, underwent some significant changes to up the simplicity and cute factor and back-burner the SimLife science originally planned by Will Wright and his team. The conjecture is that Maxis employee and outspoken industry dude Chris Hecker is responsible for the change. Whether or not that’s true, the cuteification of Spore actually caused a very different result than intended: it turned what had apparently been a pretty hard core evolution sim into a panegyric for Intelligent Design.
Chris Hecker has a small reputation for impolitic outbursts, but anyone who claims he’s bombastic or consistently out of line is being unfair. In my few dealings with him, I’ve found Chris to be affable, extraordinarily intelligent, and highly driven to realize the potential of games as both art and entertainment. The suggestion regarding Spore is that Chris was concerned that making the game over realistic would limit the audience.
In fairness to Chris, he’s denying that he spearheaded the whole “make Spore cute and simple” thing, and I believe him. Spore was made by a team – a large one – and it’s unreasonable to lay the responsibility for such a major shift on a single person. If Spore did in fact transition from being a hard simulation to a squishy and pointless sandbox, it was a group decision, not an individual one. But that’s not the interesting thing.
The interesting thing is that no matter what, it’ll be seen as “Will Wright’s Spore,” not “the hundred-odd people who work at Maxis and happen to count Will Wright as one of them’s Spore.” As a result, any potential political or social statements Spore makes will be attributed directly to Wright.
This is relevant in the context of the de-sciencing of Spore because all of a sudden, the game is practically a cheerleader for the neocon Intelligent Design movement, itself a poorly-hidden attempt to legislate the teaching of (Christian) creationism in public schools. In Spore, there is no such thing as an evolutionary failure. Not only can you not die permanently, but it’s quite possible to construct a creature for whom survival would be absolutely impossible in a Darwinian model. A creature with no eyes and legs on its head, for example, or a creature composed of nothing but ears. Or a creature with eyeballs in its ass, or a creature with a mouth physically incapable of reaching food.
Look at it this way. In a Darwinian model, the Giant Sloth presumably became extinct because it was both giant and slothy – a dangerous combination. The creature was so huge that it needed to eat a mountain of eucalyptus every day, but it was just too fucking lazy to do so. In Spore, and in Intelligent Design, the Giant Sloth became extinct because some higher power hit ESC and then clicked “Exit to Windows.”
Will Wright is a huge science nut, a fact made clear by his many and wonderful presentations at the Game Developers Conference. He’s also apparently a Republican, which is to say he’s a member of the party that, among other things, opposes science and adores Intelligent Design. Thus when I played Spore, I assumed that this game was little more than Wright’s artistic vocalization of support for the concept; something I admit I found rather surprising given his love of all things scientific, but hey.
And now it’s being suggested that Hecker and/or others railroaded the team into making Spore more cute and less realistic in the interest of broadening the audience. In so doing, Maxis seems to have dramatically altered any implied or inferred political statement the game was making. Perhaps more important, though, and more disappointing, is the fact that very few reviews of Spore have discussed the game’s obvious affection for the Intelligent Design model of evolution. Whether Maxis intended it to be so or not, Spore is a very strong statement in favor of conscious, intelligent creationism unguided by Darwinistic principles. Theoretically any game of the Civilization style is a “god game,” meaning that you as an omniscient guide are responsible for the development of your people. But in no other game is it possible to bend the logical rules of reality without penalty to your creation. If you take action that would directly injure your species in Civilization, your species suffers as a result. In Spore, it doesn’t work that way. You can make a creature that couldn’t possibly survive, and grow to dominate not just your own world but the entire galaxy.
Remember, in any art form, the creator’s intent is far less important than the consumer’s inference. Maxis can say that Spore isn’t trying to make a political statement until the cows come home, but I see it as one, and I’m not alone. What’s interesting in this case is that whatever Maxis intended, the interpretation of the game’s philosophy may stem from a marketing decision rather than any political views on the part of its creators.
“Remember, in any art form, the creator’s intent is far less important than the consumer’s inference.”
Great piece here Steerpike, and I’d agree but would add that creator’s intent is often not clear even to the creator, often least clear to the creator. Any creator who has a stated intent going into a project is going to see that intent dissolve in flux. Intent is as emergent as consumption, if the artist is being honest… being honest being the rub. In other words, it is a discovered thing, found during the process and not declared beforehand like some fancy mission statement printed on heavy paper stock. Which I guess means I agree after all…
Really good stuff and food for thought. Thanks for the inside look.
Good point, Scout, and I agree. I’ve found art that sets out to prove an obviously predetermined point to be rather pretentious and often ineffective. The story grows in the telling, I believe some author said, and that’s likely the case with any creative endeavor.
I’m rather surprised there hasn’t been more flap about this. Wright mentioned that “militant atheists” (a Republican crack if I ever heard one) had some problems with Spore, but I think it was more in the context of them taking issue with the option of using religion as well as diplomacy and war as methods of gathering power.
Glad you enjoyed it – thanks!
I am so fed up with bright people whose blinders make it impossible for them to exercise even basic logic. Isn’t it interesting that there are those so enamored with themselves they cannot imagine their being the product of evolution; but instead, endow credit on an all knowing creator. Why do we feel the need to endow ourselves with a creator in defiance of everything logical?
I think, Steerpike, you said it all when you pointed out that “But in no other game is it possible to bend the logical rules of reality without penalty to your creation. If you take action that would directly injure your species in Civilization, your species suffers as a result. In Spore, it doesn’t work that way.”
The fact is, as you also pointed out, “the creator’s intent is far less important than the consumer’s inference.” Spore seems to shamelessly advocate intelligent creationism to the point the game seems irrelevant to me because art is what its creator intended, regardless any palabber that may follow.
All that said, I must allow that Spore’s creator has created a game that does ask us to think. That, in itself is a small step forward. Perhaps we should be grateful for that.
Well said, Gallahad.
To put your final remarks another way, I think there is no doubt that Spore is an important game. I mean that from a technological perspective as well as that it’s food for thought. The technology behind Spore is staggering, and 99% of gamers will never realize the enormity of what is under that game’s hood in terms of pure software engineering genius.
It is also important because unlike nearly every other game in history, Spore is pure game – which is to say, nothing about it draws any inspiration from any other medium, and no other medium could recreate the experience of Spore with any veracity.
I find it interesting that Spore so passionately elevates Intelligent Design while still wearing the clothing of a science-lite simulation. There is great irony in the idea of a game intended to be the ultimate evolution sim becoming a shill for a philosophy that contradicts the very core of Darwin’s theories.
Er… you do realize that since the overwhelming majority of all species ever extant are extinct, to make Spore an accurate simulation would require the overwhelming majority of all Spores species created to go extinct.
Accurate, perhaps, but not much fun. Probably best Maxis didn’t go that way.
I do indeed realize that, but you may have missed my point if you thought I was saying that Spore should have been an accurate simulation.
The point I was trying to make is that by choosing cuteness and ease over accuracy, and by creating a situation in which species that should not possibly survive can through the intervention of immutable game mechanics, Spore becomes an aggressive cheerleader for Intelligent Design.
The fact that the overwhelming majority of all species ever extant are extinct is a point on the side of evolution. Spore basically says that life absolutely cannot be rendered extinct so long as its creator says it cannot. That’s creationism.
I never intended to comment on whether or not Spore was “fun,” that’s a matter of personal preference. What interests me is that the game is very obviously an apologist for creationism when one of its chief creators (political affiliation notwithstanding) is an outspoken advocate of science.
I think your observations are particularly interesting when you consider how much more of a toy than a game Spore is. One wonders if they had not “cutified” it, and had included a greater possibility for failure, if that balance would have tilted the other way…
I find it greatly disappointing that what was once heralded as *the* evolution simulation in fact turns out to be just the opposite.
Thanks for the read, Steerpike.