Have you heard of the game Spore? It is a computer game being released this fall and is the first game in quite a while that I am considering buying, despite the fact that I have no time to play games anymore.
Here is an old video of an early version of the game:
Here’s the gist of it (paraphrased from the wiki article): The game begins with a comet crashing into an uninhabited planet, releasing tiny organisms. You control one of these organisms and struggle to survive in the primordial soup. As you grow, you earn ‘DNA points’ which allow you to direct the evolution of your creature. Eventually you emerge from the ocean and the game switches from the pac-man-like cell phase to the 3D Creature phase. You run around on land, avoid enemies, reproduce and continue to evolve. After evolving a big enough brain, you move on to the Tribal phase. At this point, you get less direct control of your species’ evolution and instead control a whole tribe as they grow to become the dominant creatures on the planet. Once your tribe dominates, you control the whole civilization and the game becomes more like Sim City (Spore is made by the same people who made the Sim City and Civilization games). Finally, when your civilization has firm control over the planet, you can earn access to a UFO. This is where things get really interesting.
With the UFO you can fly to other planets and colonize then, seed them with life, mess with the inhabitants, etc. The cool thing is that there are billions of other planets, and many are inhabited by the civilizations of other Spore players. In this final phase, you can basically do whatever you want. The game itself doesn’t come out until September 5, but there is a Creature Creator available online. I have a copy, and have been playing around with it. It is very flexible, in that you can create as normal or bizarre-looking creature as you like. Want to attach arms to your creature’s knees? go for it. A mouth on the end of it’s tail? No problem. Eyes on its feet? You get the idea.
There are some limitations though. The creatures are limited to bilateral symmetry: everything you make has to be symmetric down the middle. No starfish or sea anemones or trees, although you can make creatures that are very similar but more symmetric. Creatures also have to have a backbone. That didn’t stop me from making giant spiders, but hidden beneath all the mandibles and spines there are still vertebrae.
I’m all in favor of making a game about the evolution of intelligent civilizations, I rank it near the top of the list of “Interesting Things to Think About.” I do have some slight complaints though. First, I am not a fan of the idea of panspermia: the idea that life arose elsewhere and then found its way to Earth. What good does it do you to have life originate Elsewhere (it is never really specified where) and then arrive on Earth? It seems to me that panspermia just dodges the question of how life arose by moving it off of the Earth. Life still had to arise somehwhere, and with panspermia, it also has to get blasted off of its original planet (or must arise on a comet), survive the trip through space, make it through the atmosphere, survive the impact, and then survive the conditions on early earth. Why not go with the simpler assumption that life arose on the Earth in the first place?
My second complaint is that evolution in Spore is wrong. No, I’m not mad that you have to earn “evolution points”: it’s a game, you have to do something like that. The problem is that with actual evolution, creatures don’t just sprout an extra arm. The evolution is gradual and random. The “evolution” in Spore is sudden and directed: chances are the player has some idea of what he or she wants the creature to look like, but with true evolution there is no “goal”. It would be interesting to see a variation of the game where instead of using the creature creator, the creatures just evolved randomly. I bet you would get some really weird creatures!
Of course, the whole point of the game is that the user is in control of everything. It makes for better gameplay at the expense of scientific accuracy and frankly, I’m ok with that. I can’t wait for the game to come out, and I think that it may serve to get some people interested enough in evolution and the origin of life to go and learn the real story.