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.

Ancient Wisdom from the Forums: Failures of Collective Intelligence

A while back, I wrote about how the shame you are supposed to feel when someone uses Let Me Google That For You illustrates how finding answers to your questions on the knowledge base that is the internet has become a distinct literacy. That sort of thing is really an example of how making use of collective intelligence for work and life is becoming something we expect people to be able to do.

I thought this XKCD from a few days back gets at the same idea.

The collective intelligence point is also evident in what you see when you mouse over the comic on XKCD. “All long help threads should have a sticky globally-editable post at the top saying ‘DEAR PEOPLE FROM THE FUTURE: Here’s what we’ve figured out so far …'”

Like the answer is on the tip of our collective tongue

Discussion threads are not simply records of conversations, they are part of the global knowledge base. When we get so close, like finding the thread, finding the same question, but can’t find the answer, we experience something a bit like the feeling of having a word on the tip of your tongue. At some other moment of time someone else had this problem, and if someone had just answered it for them it would be answered for me too.

Building The Forum: Or, Help Design Trevor’s Dissertation

In a 2009 interview with ReadWriteWeb, Mark O’sullivan, the lead developer of the open source web forum software Vanilla, was asked if Web forums are still relevant in the era of the real-time-web of Facebook and Twitter. His response offers an important point of entry for understanding the under-explored implications of web forum software, “Do a Google search for anything. How many of those search results are from discussion forums?” When asked if the prevalence of discussion forum threads in search results had to do with a querk in page-rank, Google’s system for evaluating the relevance of pages in any given search, he responded “It has to do with people having real discussions and giving real answers.” Yes, he is defending the relevance of his product in the face of a range of social networking platforms. Still, his response is verifiable. In my own experience, I find myself in the middle of a threaded web forum discussion on nearly a daily basis. We consult this collective knowledge-base on a regular basis, but generally know little about the structures, systems, ideologies and theories of end users involved in it’s creation.

In particular, we know little about the design decisions behind the forum software that enable dialog and discussion online. To be sure, the nature of Google’s search algorithm, page rank, and its approach to caching pages, each play important roles in this experience. However, the first step in the process involves the software tools that enable and shape our discourse online. The structure of the conversations that we engage in on online discussion boards, blogs, and other comment driven platforms are shaped (to some extent) by the Mark O’Sullivan’s of the world, the individuals that create, design, implement and hack on the software that makes the web a platform for community discussion, deliberation and dialog.

Beyond the knowledge-base, web forums are increasingly being explored as places where young and old alike are developing valuable skills and knowledge. Ito and others suggest that these kinds of spaces are where many young people are “learning to navigate esoteric domains of knowledge and practice and participating in communities that traffic in these forms of expertise” (2009, p. 28). Similar things have been said about fan fiction forumsvideo game forums, and hip-hop forums.The more we think about software environments, like forumsas learning spaces, the morewe need to understand how their design enables and disables particular kinds of discourse.

Welcome to my Dissertation (I Think)

It looks like this is what I am going to write my dissertation about. I intend to blog my way through this process. I have not yet written my proposal, I have drafted a 40 page sketch of some of the conceptual framework I am thinking through. (Which I will not subject you to), but I do not yet have a formal proposal. I plan to work through my research design on the blog and I would like to invite any and everyone even remotely interested in this topic tocomment, critique and share thoughts about how I am going about this. I am largely thinking about this as a project in software studiesplatform studiesSTS, and distributed cognition.

How to Books and A History of Vanilla Forums

To kick this off I thought I would describe the two primary sets of sources I intend to work with. So far I am focusing primarily on two kinds of source material to develop two kinds of stories.

First I am interested in exploring what how-to and technical guides targeted at people setting up software to create web communities can tell us about tell us about the relationships between users, administrators, and developers.

Second, I am interested in using the content and structure of the vanilla forums development forums, and the archive of those forums available through the internet archive, to explore the relationship between ideologies of users and administrators of the software and the actual software itself.


Together, I hope to use these sources to work toward understanding more about how the developers, and administrators of forum software conceptualize their users, and how those conceptualizations of users do or don’t become embedded in the functionality of the forum software itself.

It’s your turn! Take a moment to Opine

I’m mildly interested in what you think about this topic. I am far more interested in what you think about the sources I am considering. What do you think about how-to books and a case study of an open source forum project as the focus of this study? Are there other sources you would think about looking at to explore this? In subsequent posts I will lay out the books I am thinking about looking at and a justification for why I think Vanilla is a particularly interesting case study for this project, but at this point I am particularly interested in hearing feedback about the over all idea behind this area of study and the general kinds of sources I am talking about.