Evolution in Spore: A Case Study in Player Agency

Spore is not a good game for learning about evolution. As many have eloquently articulated the games mechanics clearly place the player in the role of intelligent designer. With that said, I think this case provides an interesting moment to explore the relationship between the role the game puts players in and what players do with that role.

While I would agree that the game does not teach people about evolution, I haven’t seen anything about how players are actually understanding and interpreting the game. This is indicative of a trend across game criticism and scholarship. Instead of exploring how games are understood by their players, they are most frequently analyzed with the assumption that any perceived in adequacies in the mechanics of a game will transfer uninterrupted into the minds of the games players.

To underscore the problems that arise in this kind of thinking I present an extreme case. Below is Youtube user, KyoraMishiso’s interpretation and presentation of the game. Kyora is a young aspiring cartoonist who reports her favorite artist as Enriquo Rermi. Two years ago she posted this video, titled. “Spore Evolution” Below is her video.

In this example Kyora has used the game as a platform for telling a story. She is using the game, not the other way around. She took the mechanics of the game and filled in the gaps in the games treatment of evolution with her own knowledge. She then created this video, which has now been watched more than 60,000 times, to articulate her interpretation of the game. While I see no reason to accept her understanding of the game as anything more than a personal one, quite frankly, an understanding of how one individual engages with the game is more than most analysis of the game which I have seen.

I offer this example to illustrate one way in which a player has engaged with the game. With that said, this sort of example should provide a wake-up call to individuals that think understanding games does not require understanding how players understand, interact with, and make use of their game play experiences. While analysis of the game as artifact can provide valuable information about it’s creator’s intentions those intentions are just one layer of a games meaning. Each player brings their own experience into dialog with the artifact to make their own meaning, and I think this example helps illuminate the need to understand the meaning players make as they co-construct their experiences in games.

I think cases like this point out how frequently those interested in studying games start out by asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking, what does a game mean; we should be asking what does a game mean in a given context? We should be looking at how are players using the game and what kind of agency they are expressing through interaction with the game. What argument is the games creator making and how are it’s players understanding, misunderstanding, agreeing with, rejecting, or otherwise complicating that meaning?