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See Inside January 2009

The Science of Spore--The "Evolution" of Gaming

A computer game illustrates the difference between building your own simulated creature and real-life natural selection



Matt Collins

When Will Wright was developing Spore, his much acclaimed computer game, he interviewed several life scientists. He asked them how nature had actually done what he was attempting to simulate in the game—which was, among other things, the development of the earliest stages of life and its evolution. (Some billboard advertisements for the game feature the slogan “Evolution Begins at Spore.com.”) Among the scientists Wright consulted were Michael Levine, a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley; Neil H. Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago; and Hansell Stedman, a surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

But for all the research that went into it, Spore comes off as a mixed success at replicating the inner workings of evolution by natural selection. On the plus side, in both the game and the real world, there is competition among individuals: Darwin’s well-known “struggle for existence.” In both, the more fit survive, and the less so die out, duplicating the basic evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest. In the game and in real life, simple entities develop into more complex ones, a pattern that is a common, though not an inevitable, feature of Darwinian evolution. Finally, in both Spore and in nature, life-forms tend to be bilaterally symmetrical, even though exceptions occur in real-life creatures such as amoebas as well as in some of Spore’s unicellular organisms.

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