Will Wright makes God games—simulations that give players the power to create the world in their own image. SimCity cast us as urban planners, providing the tools to build, manage and gleefully raze sprawling metropolises. The Sims let us pull the strings in a virtual dollhouse, acting out the complexities of human interactions from a comfortable distance. Now Wright has his eyes on the whole enchilada. “The point of Spore,” he says, is “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.” From the primordial ooze to the vast reaches of space, Spore lets players micromanage a species for eons. And, in doing so, it flirts with divisive questions about the origins of life.
A trailer for Spore seems to back the idea that the universe is continually tweaked by the divine. “Behold the galaxy,” the narrator intones, “full of stars and light and intelligence.” Over images that look like they came straight from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the clip riffs on the opening lines of Genesis. “Not long ago it was cold and dark. So what happened? Someone made a decision.” But Wright, a self-avowed atheist, comes down squarely on the side of Darwin. “It’s funny because in the game you’re in the role of an intelligent designer,” he says. “Yet the meta-message of the game is that life becomes what it is through the process of evolution.”
Such a position seems risky at a time when the national debate continues to rage, with fundamentalists pushing schools to teach Creationism while atheist firebrands like Richard Dawkins call belief in the divine a mere delusion. Wright thinks Spore can provide a fruitful middle ground for both camps. “I think we can accomplish this in a way that feels like its catalytic,” he says, “rather than try to stir up trouble.” The discussion has already begun on web forums dedicated to Spore. Even before the game’s release, it inspired healthy, mostly polite debate.
“Pretty much the only people who seem offended at this point are the really hardcore atheists,” Wright suggests, “because they don’t like the idea of religion in the game at all.” Organized religion plays a role in the game’s civilization phase, when your pet species attempts to conquer the hearts and minds of neighbors. “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 [that] what we saw—in a playful, fun way—was a roughly scientific view of the universe and life.”
Wright isn’t totally dismissive of faith. “A lot of the top scientists that I respect consider themselves religious.” And, in the end, he’s not interested in force-feeding his personal beliefs to players. He considers Spore “primarily entertainment.” Besides, he would rather inspire. “I see the value of these things much more in the realm of motivation than education,” he offers. His hope is to use games like Spore to encourage interest in “different fields whether they’re science fields, cultural, engineering or whatever.” And he doesn’t consider Spore’s omnipotent perspective to be at odds with his beliefs. Because, for Wright, player involvement comes first. “We did have prototypes,” he admits, “where creatures were evolving out of your control. You were picking from a selected set of mutations. And it was so much less engaging than if you’d actually gone and designed the creature itself.”
And that’s how a dyed-in-the-wool atheist came to allow the hand of God to play a part in the origins of life.