GDC 2009: Taking Spore seriously

Serious Games Summit speaker Margaret Robertson says EA and Maxis' evolution simulator may not be big with scientists, but it isn't without followers in the serious game space.

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SAN FRANCISCO--EA and Maxis' Spore generated a good deal of buzz from the moment it was announced at the 2005 Game Developers Conference. On the commercial-gaming side, the game represented the latest effort from celebrity game designer Will Wright, one that was backed by the substantial resources of publishing powerhouse Electronic Arts.

Margaret Robertson
Margaret Robertson

Beyond its commercial application, Spore also received attention from the serious-game community. After all, it isn't every day that a science-oriented game that sets out to tell the story of intelligent life, from its humble inception to its fullest potential, receives the aforementioned attention of Wright and EA.

As part of the 2009 Serious Games Summit, held in conjunction with the Game Developers Conference this week, game-design consultant and writer Margaret Robertson delivered a Spore postmortem of sorts, focusing exclusively on the game's fallout in the serious-games community.

Modeling her session after Spore's five stages of development, Robertson first addressed expectations for the game, or the Cell Phase. She said that many within the community had extremely high hopes due to the game's emphasis on science, Wright and his "dream team" of developers, Spore's collaborative component, and the massive funds available to Maxis.

Moving onto the Creature Phase, Robertson described what EA and Maxis actually delivered, relaying much of the information that can be found in GameSpot's review of Spore as well as other prelaunch coverage. Of note, Robertson said that one of the biggest concerns before the game came out, which was subsequently confirmed on its arrival, was that the game "radically misrepresents how evolution actually works." The most appropriate way that she's heard it described was that it is less of an evolution simulator and more of a Mr. Potato Head simulator.

Robertson then shifted into the Tribal Phase, or Spore's reception and immediate fallout. Particularly, Robertson called out the poor reception within the science community, referencing the uproar caused by EA's shady inclusion of science experts as part of a "Making of" documentary for National Geographic. This move, she said, instantly alienated the science community, whom EA hoped would accept the game as a tool.

Robertson also noted that Spore drew flack from the religious community, calling out specifically the Web site Anti Spore. Ostensibly created by a Christian fundamentalist, the site sparked a massive furor over the game's religious implications, drawing tens of thousands of commentators, before the site creator abruptly revealed that everyone involved had become the latest victim of Poe's Law. Despite its end, Robertson noted the importance of the conversation that took place, and the significance of a game causing thousands of people to articulate their thoughts on the matter.

In the Civilization Phase, Robertson got down to what the serious-games community was actually doing with Spore. Not surprisingly in the wake of the game's fallout among the scientific community, no one was using the game to teach science. Instead, the game proved to be popular with those teaching creative writing as an introduction to 3D modeling, teamwork building, and emotional literacy. All of these uses, she said, were primarily aimed at kids younger than 12, and especially ones with disabilities.

Interestingly, she said that nearly everyone using the game in the serious-games sector was working only through the Creature Creator Tool, mostly because it was free. Why is this? According to Robertson, the game itself isn't used because the "science is bunk," the game is too complicated, and it's too expensive, a fact, she noted, that was exacerbated by the fact that EA doesn't offer any academic purchasing discounts. Ultimately, Robertson emphasized that it is really too soon to tell whether Spore will gain adoption in academia, largely because the game was released in September, when many teachers had already laid out their plans for the school year.

Lastly, Robertson addressed the Space Phase, or where Spore can go in the future. One shining star, she said, were the 10 to 12 prototypes released for Maxis that she called "simple, quick, scientific, accurate." She also said that the recently released Spore API has potential, given that it will let researchers discover how millions of people will act in certain situations. Who will choose war? Who will choose peace? What's the gender split? She said that there are any number of sociological questions that can be analyzed through the game.

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