Reading the Sporum: What Players do with Spore

It appears the stars have aligned and several papers I have had in the works for a while are hitting the streets at the same time. I’m excited to announce that an article I wrote for Cultural Studies of Science Education is now up in “Online First.” I thought I would share the abstract, and one section from the paper where I talk through some of the ways that people role play at natural history in the forums.

Owens, T. J. (2012). Teaching intelligent design or sparking interest in science?
What players do with and take away from Will Wright’s Spore. Cultural Studies of Science Education  DOI: 10.1007/s11422-012-9383-5

Abstract: Teaching intelligent design or sparking interest in science?

The 2008 commercial video game Spore allowed more than a million players to design their own life forms. Starting from single-celled organisms players played through a caricature of natural history. Press coverage of the game’s release offer two frames for thinking about the implications of the game. Some scientists and educators saw the game as a troubling teacher of intelligent design, while others suggested it might excite public interest in science. This paper explores the extent to which these two ways of thinking about the game are consistent with what players have done with the game in its online community. This analysis suggests that, at least for the players participating in this community, the game has not seduced them into believing in intelligent design. Instead the activities of these players suggest that the game has played a catalytic role in engaging the public with science. These findings indicate that designers of educational games may wish to consider more deeply tensions between prioritizing accuracy of content in educational games over player engagement.

The Evolution of the Javelin Hawk

I had a ton of fun with this paper. The Sporum, the Spore web forums, is a crazy place and a good time. I think it also turns out to be a great place to test ideas about what people who play sand box games like Spore end up doing as a result of their experiences playing the game. In any event, writing about the “Javelin Hawk” will likely be my only chance to discuss something that has a “prehensile throat” which it uses to “spear live prey and drink its innards using gastric juices vomited up through the throat”. Enjoy!

Stylistically written to evoke what might be described as, ‘‘textbook language’’ a player describes how the ‘‘Javelin Hawk evolved from the Archeopteryx, an early bird.’’ The player explains, Archeopteryx developed a ‘‘strange mutation in which part of the esophagus was extended into the mouth, resembling a hose.’’ It is important to note that the game itself does not employ the idea of mutation. In Spore, players spend ‘‘DNA points’’ to add features to their creatures. This player brought in the idea of mutation to serve as a layer of explanation for how their creature came about. The player goes on to explain that this mutation ‘‘was usually fatal, until the opening evolved to be prehensile.’’ This is, yet again, a significant addition to the way the game works. Not only is the player using the idea of mutation, she is also presenting mutation as something that, for most of the creatures who exhibited the mutation, is fatal. Only coupled with an additional mutation, the player explains, did these creatures’ esophagi became prehensile resulting in a viable new species. The player explains and names this creature as an intermediate form; ‘‘This creature with a prehensile throat was known as the Perlingua.’’ From there, the player reports, ‘‘Eventually, with the extinction of the succulent plants it fed on in the area, it evolved a larger longue [sic] that was very sharp to spear live prey and drink it’s [sic] innards using gastric juices vomited up through the throat.’’ In this explanation, the player identifies that the loss of the creatures’ food source, the plants, led to it ‘‘evolving’’ a larger tongue with which it could spear live prey. The description here sounds a bit Lamarkian: the extinction of the plants that the creatures ate could have led to their extinction but could not prompt them to ‘‘evolve.’’ Instead, a loss of a creatures’ food source could act as a factor in natural selection.

For those without access to the official copy you can see my personal unofficial archival HTML copy here on my website.

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