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GDC: Lessons Learned From  Spore : Its Science And More
GDC: Lessons Learned From Spore: Its Science And More
March 25, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

March 25, 2009 | By Christian Nutt
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More: Serious, GDC



As part of the Serious Games Summit, journalist and and consultant Margaret Robertson investigated Maxis' Spore in the context of serious games -- and in that exploration, made smart insights into the more general interest and debate around the title.

Challenged at the end of her presentation in the Q&A session that Spore was never intended to be a serious game, Robertson admitted that she should have been more up front about that.

Arguments aside, Robertson's look at why Spore has not been taken quite so seriously or taken up by educators as easily as we perhaps would expect provided insight into the complicated issues that arise from the pop science the game portrays.

In her words, "This is about looking at a game that was viewed to have enormous potential in so many fields, and looking at whether that has come to pass."

Robertson has spent the last year researching Spore for magazine articles, speaking to Maxis developers, and also working on serious games for clients like the UK network Channel 4 -- so she has some perspective on both Spore and the issues of using games to teach science.

The cell phase

Her talk was structured to parallel the phases from Spore. It began with the cell phase, as does the game, and the topic of it was "Where did the excitement come from?" Answer: "The fact that it looked toward science for its themes was tremendously exciting." As Robertson recognizes from her own efforts, science is fascinating but making it palatable to a wide audience is difficult.

It was also exciting because The Sims "had huge cultural traction", leading to the hope that the game would "really infiltrate people's mentality on a cultural level." The game also answered a pet question of the serious games industry, to a certain extent -- "What would it be like if I had 10 million instead of 10,000?"

At this point Robertson launched into the "creature phase" of her talk -- describing the game's structure and modes (which you can easily find a synopsis of elsewhere.)

But she did segue into one of the core debates about Spore's viability as a science teaching tool: "One of the big concerns before the game came out and I think that it was confirmed when the game came out is that it radically misrepresents anything that could be considered evolution." Taking that further, she says "It has rather meanly but accurately described as not being an evolution simulator but a Mr. Potato Head simulator."

Tribal phase: What happened when the arguments started?

"What happened when the game came out was a huge amount of hot air. There was a huge debate about how good the game was, there was a huge debate about the DRM... And there was a big debate about the science," says Robertson.

While there was debate on whether the game represented evolution or intelligent design, the debate further fractured into sub-debates that were pro- and anti- both stances: it was said to represent all positions by different parties.

Adding to the debate, "One of the things that triggered the controversy was a show that aired on the National Geographic channel called How to Build a Better Being... After the show aired, a number of the scientists [interviewed in the show's segments] said that they had not been told that the show would contain anything about a game." The scientific community was put on the defensive.

Ultimately, this lead to author and scientist John Bohannon to embark on a series called Flunking Spore, which "exhaustively catalogued all of the science it touches on." Similar information can be found on the scienceguild.org wiki.

Beyond addressing evolutionary topics, according to Robertson, "There was this hope that Spore reflected something fundamentally of the scientific method." Unfortunately, she says, "The response was that the science of Spore wasn't accurate and was actively misleading."

A blog called Anti Spore arose, chronicling a Fundamentalist Christian response to the game -- and was eventually revealed to be a hoax. To Robertson, what this doesn't reveal the discussion to be meaningless; instead, "...actually this is staggering to me, because this is a game that caused tens of thousands of people to be forced to articulate their profound thoughts on who they are and their place in the universe."

"We don't talk enough about the potential of games to be valuable as polemics...", says Robertson. "Spore isn't god vs. science, but all of this grew out of this. What other debates could we be having... In other contexts?"

Civ phase: What have we actually built with these tools?

Robertson has launched an investigation to find out what sorts of teachers are using Spore to teach science. She says, however, "They don't exist. I've done a whole bunch of research and I've not found anyone using Spore to teach science." Instead, Spore is being used in ways that may surprise the gaming audience.

It's being used for applications from creative writing (helping kids understand story construction and perspective) to introduction to 3D modeling and teaching teamwork -- particularly with kids with developmental disabilities. It's also being used for emotional literacy work with autism -- where educators are looking at games as tools for communication.

Per Robertson, there are many common elements of the Spore-utilizing educators she's spoken to. Nobody is using the game itself; all are using the free Creature Creator tool -- because it's free, which frees them both from expense and from paperwork and bureaucracy. It's being used with young kids -- under 12. It's being used collaboratively, again mainly because of financial (equipment) restrictions, and it's being used in ways that can be output in other media -- as skits, stories, or comics (using the mashon.org Spore comic tool.)

So why don't educators use the full game? "The science was a huge problem for many people," says Robertson. It's also too expensive and EA does not offer any sort of flexible educational licensing program (a complaint echoed and amplified by an audience member at the end of the session.) It's also too time-consuming to play the game through, and too complicated in its many phases.

It's also much too soon, says Robertson, to gauge is uptake -- the game has only existed since release to most educators, and it was released in September, the beginning of most Western school years and too late to be incorporated into many lesson plans.

There is also still a lot of prejudice against using games from many teachers and parents. Crucially, its "TTP factor" -- i.e. "time to penis", or "how long it will take a room full of kids to make something rude with the tools that you give them" is too short for junior high-age educators.

Space phase: Where does Spore go from here?

Robertson sees ancillary benefits of Spore beyond the core game and its Creature Creator. The Spore Prototypes, some of which have been released by Maxis and which are accessible here, according to Robertson, "They do everything right the game does wrong... They're quick, they're scientifically accurate." The Spore API also opens up potential applications from outside developers.

And while the game may not function to educate players on the scientific method, it is a lab -- to examine its players, says Robertson. "One of the really interesting things that happens is when you look at Spore as a repository of the decisions people make."

Spore was unable to become a teaching tool easily, says Robertson, because "Spore didn't really have any [scientifically trained] subject advocates... The team did a lot of PR. They're very well-read but they're not scientists." Moreover, "EA didn't define [the debate] before it came out." There were also no teaching advocates to promote the game to educators.

What lessons can public and teacher reaction to Spore teach those in the serious games space? Offer a free version of your game to get them hooked, as with the Creature Creator.

Collaborative play is key for classrooms, "because often there isn't enough kit to go around, and often teachers don't want to create classroom environments where kids are locked down doing one thing on their own." Flexible output -- like the easy YouTube, jpeg and comic book elements of Spore, make it a more valuable asset to teachers.

After the presentation, one questioner asked Robertson if the giant budget really was an asset to the game, and she did demure. In her own experience with serious games, "The most successful projects that we have done have been the cheapest... The big projects fall prey to a bunch of wastage, and to feature creep, and to confusion to what you're going to focus on."


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