Will Wright sure knows how to make a guy feel completely insignificant.
Thursday night, the charismatically nerdy creator of Spore celebrated the upcoming release of his evolutionary (and revolutionary) from-base-life-to-intergalactic-exploration game at a launch party at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, CA. There, he tells the press how he wants to inspire artists.
His new buddy, astrophysicist Frank Drake (most famous for his alien-hunting work on the SETI program and with his own Drake’s Equation), then tells us how the world needs more scientists. Then the evening wraps up with the venue itself showing us how physically small we all are in the grand scheme of things via a visual planetarium trip through the known universe.
It all makes one feel as though he should be doing something more with his life than playing computer games. But as Wright humbly sees it, Spore (which he initially named SimEverything) could be the bridge.
The man (who was also the brains behind SimCity and The Sims) loved creating stuff as a kid. “I spent most of my childhood building models -- planes, tanks, ships...” says Wright. “My mother used to complain that I would spend all this time making models, but I later found a way to make a career out of it, so she stopped complaining. I think it’s kind of cool that I get to spread that obsession [through Spore].”
But, as you might expect, Wright is thinking about a much bigger picture here, way beyond just giving players the tools to populate alien worlds with penis creatures. “If you go and ask kids, ‘Can you draw? Can you dance? Can you sing?’ They typically say yes. Kids know they’re creative,” says Wright. “If you go into a university class and ask the same questions, everybody says no. So people can extrapolate the process of education is really teaching us what we cannot do.
“But yet in games, we found that any time we give players creative capacity, the ability to make stuff, they love doing it. They’ll make content. They love sharing it.”
Wright shows many slides this evening in his light-hearted yet heady PowerPoint presentation. Scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey illustrate the impact the movie had on his life and Spore. “It introduced me to a couple of major concepts: number one, the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence, and number two, the idea of homicidal robots,” says Wright. “Both of these things stuck with me for a long, long time.”
Drake’s Equation, used to calculate how many spacemen may theoretically be living out there, pops up on-screen, something Wright refers to as “a simple equation... that a five-year old can understand” but might be better suited for Good Will Hunting to decipher. Naturally, it’s another influence that eventually helped to form Spore. And pictures of several entertainment-bred aliens appear, ranging from E.T. (Wright: “nice”) to Alf (“stupid”). Wright shows how their variety closely reflects humanity’s.
But perhaps the most interesting, most telling slide is one showing a graph of art, quantity on the Y-axis versus quality on the X-axis, on a downward curve. On the far left is a child’s drawing. High quantity available, low quality usually. On the far right is the Mona Lisa. Very low quantity (like... one), high quality. What Wright hopes to do with Spore is to raise the bar... or rather, the curve.
“It’s not a problem with our creators,” says Wright. “It’s a problem with our toolsets. So what we wanted to do with Spore is pull up [the right, Mona Lisa] side of the curve by increasing the power of the tools.”
Enter Spore’s creation system, used for everything from your starting, primitive creature to the sleek (or not) spaceship it’ll eventually pilot to other worlds. Wright’s hoping the long-term effects of giving the masses such a user-friendly system will eventually produce more Mona Lisas in our society. Or in game terms (more specifically, Civilization terms), Wright feels he just gave humanity a +10 culture bonus with Spore.
Wright’s brainiac friend, however, is looking for a +10 science bonus. “We in our culture are not producing enough scientists these days,” says Drake. “Young people have become interested in other things. The result is a smaller fraction of young people are going into science, and this is bad... for our country and for our world.
“How do you get people to be interested in science? You expose them to the most interesting questions in science. And one of those is the nature of extraterrestrial intelligent creatures. Spore works to do this.”
Drake goes on to prove that he’s not just some “celebrity” guest speaker who isn’t familiar with the product he’s helping to promote. He pulls up on the screen his own in-game Spore creation, a “Supersapien,” to show the audience. The Supersapien is what Drake imagines a human would end up becoming through perfect evolution: a mouth that connects directly to the stomach (because the esophagus is a waste of space, and we shouldn’t be breathing and eating through the same organ -- choking hazard, you know), a single eye at the back of the head (for mothers to watch their offspring), and six limbs (because two arms are not enough to carry your groceries and open doors at the same time).
Can a computer game inspire others to think this way? Can it inspire something... more?
“We’ve taken people in focus groups all the way through the game,” says Lucy Bradshaw, vice president and general manager at developer Maxis, as well as executive producer on Spore. “They have this awe when they move from one stage [of evolution] to the next. The first zooming out from their planet to the space stage...it was this moment that just connects with them in this way. Half the time they’re like, ‘[gasping noise] Huh! Oh my gosh! There’s just all of this stuff to do now.’
“That simple statement is one of the things we were hoping to trigger with this ‘powers of 10’ -- this idea and context of where we are in this galaxy. And if that provokes people to think even a little bit further about how you’re going to adapt and what were some of those stages in evolution that allowed you to ultimately succeed in that particular ecosystem -- that's the kind of interesting, provocative thought [processes] that might happen.
“At the same time, we make it a game. We make it a fun experience.”
So maybe we don’t need to worry about doing something more, something bigger just yet. Wright, Drake, and the California Academy of Sciences planetarium might enjoy reminding us what tiny specks we are in an incomprehensible universe and how greater things may lie ahead for us, but for now, we can feel better about ourselves simply by playing a computer game.