Will Wright’s Spore seemed destined for controversy. The game is, after all, about evolution. And we know that a significant chunk of the American public believes that a loving God created the heavens, earth and everything in between. Yet the game has shipped with nary a peep from detractors. The only cannonball fired in the game’s direction—a fairly whacked-out blog called Anti-Spore—turned out to be a hoax (and a Rickroll, to add insult to injury).
Regardless, we were eager to speak with Wright and discuss the intriguing push and pull at work in a "God game" that’s goal is to inform and entertain gamers by ushering them aboard the biological roller coaster of Darwinian theory. The following transcript (edited only for clarity) became the framework for Paste’s November ’08 Complicated Games column, "Life, The Universe and Everything." Wright discusses his issues with the 'intelligent design' movement, his thoughts on the educational potential of video games and why people should invent their own personal religions.
PASTE: The Spore trailer (see below) at Electronic Arts’ E3 press conference struck me. The narrator in the clip says, “someone made a decision” when it comes to creating life and eventually winds up saying “that someone is you.” There's an interesting parallel to creationism and intelligent design in the ad even though the game is ostensibly about evolution
WILL WRIGHT: It's funny because in the game you're kind of in the role of an intelligent designer. Yet the kind of meta message of the game is life becomes what it is through the process of evolution. In fact the other creatures around you are evolving while you're exhibiting intelligent design. Personally, I'm very much a strong evolutionist—basically atheist, agnostic-ish. For the game design, though, we really wanted the player to be emotionally involved with what they were doing. Throughout any kind of game, especially a game like Spore, you have to be always cognizant of keeping the player's emotional engagement with what they're doing. It's very much a game design kind of decision to have the player do this. We did have prototypes, actually, where creatures were evolving out of your control and you were picking from a selected set of mutations of your creature. And it was so much less engaging than if you'd actually gone and designed the creature itself. But we kind of liked the idea that the game is fairly ambiguous in that space. It doesn't really feel like it has a strong agenda. Because we're actually reading on our forums on the website, a lot of religious people talking to atheist people and basically discussing these concepts and debating them, fairly intelligently, without a lot of malice towards each other.
P: I found some Christian reviews of The Sims games and similarly it seemed like people from the Christian perspective were able to say, “Look, some of those characters were wont to be polyamorous, but you can control them—again it's another 'God game'—and say look I want my world to be this way and people to have monogamous relationships.” It seems like your games are really good at allowing both groups to enjoy their respective fantasies.
WW: That was interesting about The Sims. From the early stages of the design we decided that we wanted to allow gay relationships. If the player kinda pushed it in that direction we wanted people to basically build whatever family they came from or create in the game. I thought it would be more controversial. But then again, like you mentioned, they don't do that unless you push them in that direction. So if somebody called us up and said, “my two guys are in love,” well you must have made them flirt. Right? So the player pretty much had to drive it in that direction. I remember an interview I had with Out magazine, about a year after The Sims was released. They wanted to come and report all the controversy about gay relationships in The Sims from the religious community. They were, apparently, disappointed because basically there was none.
P: Did you expect Spore to generate any of its own controversy?
WW: Depending on how you look at this, it's kind of funny and ironic. I was talking about this with some European reporters a couple of weeks ago and they approach the whole thing with utter bemusement that evolution would even be the slightest bit controversial. Compared to American culture where you have this whole creationist undertone. So it's very much an American cultural phenomenon, almost in the same way that alien abductions are. I think evolution is such a fundamental aspect, not just of biological advancement, but also of a lot of natural systems and the way they organize in the complexity that Spore was an attempt to find a very simple model that you can roughly use to explain the entire universe. That's really the point of Spore, to step back five steps from life and the universe and the world and get a very vast perspective on the complete history and possible future of life and what life means to the overall universe.
So, at that level, I think the idea that even the religious people are trying to look for meaning in what's out there. At least the ones that are really religiously inquisitive, I should say, as opposed to dogmatic. The fact that we're at least trying to bring up how vast and wonderful life and the universe are, that’s a feeling people on both sides can appreciate. We actually deal with a lot of fairly specific religious things in the game especially around the “civilization” phase where religion is one of your superpowers or strategic approaches to playing the game. We were trying to be fairly careful not to overtly offend anyone religious. We had a lot of religious people on our team, in fact. And there were a couple of spots in the game where they sort of felt uncomfortable about things we were doing. We had a meeting, had them air their concerns and then we tried to design around that. It wasn't our intention to offend anybody. But at the same time, we wanted to present, what we saw in a playful, fun way, was a roughly scientific view of the universe and life.
P: What kind of behaviors, if you don't mind sharing, were you implementing that people thought were too silly?
WW: Well, there were a couple of thing that had to do with the end game, that I can't really talk about because they're kinda secret, where we wanted to make it clear that some of these creatures you were interacting with were not God, but just really powerful aliens. That was part of it. There's another part, like in the “city” game, there's a religious strategy you can pursue with religious cities. We have superpowers that you earn depending on how you play the game. You get a cultural personality slider set. And some of stuff gets kind of silly out of the box—some of the religious superpowers like “plague of locusts” and stuff like that. And, oddly enough, those didn't offend the religious people at all. It offended the hardcore atheist people. There's a whole big discussion going on on our website where pretty much the only people who seem offended at this point are the really hardcore atheists, because they don't like the idea of religion in the game at all. They wish there was a switch where they could turn off religion. But religious people, for the most part, seem pretty tolerant about it.
The criticism is not always coming from where you'd expect. But also we have things like the religious strategy working the best on unhappy citizens. That's where you really want to target. An unhappy populace is the most susceptible to bring over to your religion. Some people pointed it out, but it didn't seem to offend anybody to the degree that we would remove it. It made for a good paper, rock, scissors kind of balance between the different powers.
P: It kind of plays to the “opiate of the masses” idea of religion if anybody was going to take that negative angle.
WW: I can see how certain religious people might find that somewhat offensive or slightly offensive, but I've found, for the most part, that the mainstream people—in some sense I get feeling that they're unfairly categorized against a very small minority of fundamentalists. Most religious people I know believe in evolution. That's kind of overwhelmed by the small, vocal minority of people that don't.
P: That's really an interesting point. What your game is doing is saying that there is a possibility for evolution and intelligent design to coexist, at least in our imagination. Maybe not in reality, but here's an example of both things working together and here's how it could happen.
WW: I think a lot of people, even ones that are what we call Darwinists or are scientifically inclined, are not necessarily closed to the idea that there are aspects of the universe we don't understand. Like how it originated. There's a question of whether that's normal science or religion. But there's clearly some limits to our understanding right now. For a lot of people that's where religion starts, where science starts. A lot of the debate is about “is there overlap there, or not?” A lot of the top scientists that I respect consider themselves religious.
The ‘intelligent design’ thing, in particular, is a label that's applied to something that I, so far, have found nobody that actually believes in. There are definitely people that believe in creationism and other various interpretations of the Bible. But the whole intelligent-design movement as we know it today is actually a very recent movement that originated in the early '90s from this place called The Discovery Institute. And it's really a clever strategy to crack the door open and start teaching creationism in schools. But what they talk about with intelligent design actually has no theory behind it. It's just trying to poke holes in Darwinism. And if you go out and talk to regular people, there's nobody I've met that says, “Oh, I believe in intelligent design.” The might say, “I believe that God created the earth four thousand years ago.” But that's not what intelligent design is about at all. So I think intelligent design is more of an agenda than a belief system.