Teaching intelligent design or sparking interest in science? What players do with Will Wright’s Spore

Teaching intelligent design or sparking interest in science? What players do with Will Wright’s Spore. Unofficial personal archive copy of paper published in Cultural Studies of Science Education DOI 10.1007/s11422-012-9383-5

Abstract 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.

Keywords: Games and learning,  Web communities,  Hermeneutic,
Intelligent design,  Simulation

In October of 2008, in a lead article for the journal Science, a distinguished panel of scientists published an extensive and detailed review of Spore (Bohannon 2008). Evolutionary biologists T. Ryan Gregory and Niles Eldredge, respectively from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, reviewed the first stage of the game which focuses on biological evolution. Sociologist and co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the National Science Foundation William Bainbridge, reviewed the next stages, which focus on the emergence of culture, societies, war and religion. Finally, NASA astrophysicist Miles Smith, reviewed the last stage of the game in which players explore space. The title of their review, Flunking Spore, makes clear that that the game failed to meet their expectations.

The fact that the game failed to meet these scientists’ assumptions is not particularly noteworthy, by all accounts the game does not offer an accurate model of contemporary scientific understanding. What is noteworthy is that their critique of the game is nuanced, recognizes limitations on the design process, and very directly engages with their experience playing the game. This kind of in depth engagement with a videogame, in one of the most prestigious of science publications, would have been unimaginable 10 years ago. Games are being taken seriously by educators and academics.

Press coverage of Spore suggests two primary modes for evaluating the impact of the game. Negative reactions to the game primarily focused on flaws in the model of the world Spore presents. Some of these critiques went so far as to suggest that the game’s model teaches players intelligent design. In contrast, positive reactions to the game, while accepting that the game’s model is flawed, suggested that Spore could still serve as a means to get people excited about science. After briefly documenting and characterizing these two frames in press coverage of Spore, I unpack the implications for these two ways for thinking about the game, and educational games more broadly. I then explore the extent to which these frames are consistent with how Spore players have engaged with the game as documented in player discussions on the game’s online community forums. While the viability of each of these frames for understanding the game may seem somewhat insignificant, their implications are potentially far reaching for the design of educational games.

Method and approach

This study is fundamentally a hermeneutic endeavor (Crotty 1998). The purpose of this is not to reveal truth, but to engage with ways of interpreting the potential impact of this particular game and put those ways of thinking about the game in dialog with documentation of discussion that resulted from playing the game. To this end, I begin by identifying and subsequently unpacking the ideologies behind two contrasting frames for understanding and interpreting the presumed effects of this game as presented in the press. I then evaluate those frames through examination of the nature and content of the discourse players engage in Spore’s online community forums.

This study is rooted in my own curiosity about different approaches to thinking about the effects of Spore. I began by searching several databases which aggregate news to pull together much of the major press coverage of the games release. From there I selected the articles that reported on the potential good or harm the game might engender. In what follows, I present the primary salient differences between two ways of presenting the possible effects of Spore. These frames are by no means the best ways for understanding the game, they are simply the most prevalent. In keeping with the hermeneutic approach, the value of these frames is that they can be used instrumentally to help us better understand the implications of players’ engagement with this game.

After documenting, identifying and unpacking these two frames, I explored the extent to which each could function as a viable explanation of player’s activity in the game’s web forums. In this case, my analysis of the interactions in the forums is not focused on the kinds of thick description which come with ethnographic work (Geertz 1975). Instead, my analysis of the forums is specifically targeted at exploring the extent to which the themes in the press coverage of the game can function as viable theories of the game given the kinds of conversations going on in the community. There is certainly much that could be learned from more in-depth explorations of themes that emerge in the conversations that occur in web communities around Spore, but the purpose of this analysis is very specifically focused on exploring if either of the frames proposed in the press for understanding the game is consistent with the kind of activity in which community members engage.

In selecting discussion threads from the Spore forums for analysis, I chose to embrace the structure and presentation format of the forums and focus on discussions which appeared on the first several pages of each discussion section I analyzed. Briefly, the web forum tool, which the Spore forums use, prioritizes and privileges site content in very particular ways. Specifically, the front page of any given section of the forums is populated by the most recently commented on posts. By focusing on discussions linked from the front page of each section of the forums, my analysis focuses on a set of particularly active discussions as well as the discussion threads which have been noted by site administrators as particularly important discussions for orienting new participants in the forum (Forum administrators have the ability to ‘‘sticky’’ any particular discussion thread which causes it to remain the first result on the discussion page). This approach was taken for two reasons. First, this set of content is exactly what a user visiting the site would find. In this sense, the content I focused my analysis on is the most likely to orient users to how the discussions work. Second, this content represents a mixture of new discussions and particularly active discussions, thus providing a mix of some of the content which participants and administrators in the forums have found to be particularly noteworthy while still including a smattering of newly created smaller threads. This approach does not allow inferences and generalizations about ‘‘average’’ forum discussions. Because the goal of this study is to document the kinds of discussions that occur in these forums and not the frequency at which particular themes appear, this is not a particularly important limitation. With that noted, the analysis in which I engage may well suggest potential value in sampling and coding larger sets of discussions in the forums in order to explore the frequency of the themes that emerge in my analysis.

Spore as the intelligent design teacher

The title of a September 2008 USA Today interview with Will Wright, ‘‘Spore creator inspired by intelligent design’’ is evocative of much of the press coverage surrounding the game’s release. Discussions of Spore are frequently entangled with discussions of intelligent design. In an article on the game for Seed Magazine, game designer Margaret Robertson delved into this assertion in detail (2008). Robertson suggested that in its final state the game incorporated ‘‘systems and ideas that run the risk of being actively misleading’’ and that ‘‘Scientists brought in to evaluate the game for potential education projects recoiled as it became increasingly evident that the game broke many more scientific laws than it obeyed.’’ She suggested that those scientists expressed ‘‘grave concerns about a game which seems to further the idea of intelligent design under the badge of science, and they bristle at its willingness to use words like ‘evolution’ and ‘mutation’ in entirely misleading ways.’’ In short, discussions and analysis of the mechanics of the game accurately diagnose a range of problems, often going as far as suggesting that the game promoted intelligent design.

Some proponents of intelligent design embraced the game. The Christian news site, Christianpost.com, ran an article that suggested that Spore ‘‘helps players understand intelligent design’’ (Phan 2008). In this post, Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute is quoted as explaining that, ‘‘Anyone can see that Spore is not really about evolution by the Darwinian mechanism; it’s about evolution by intelligent design’’ (Phan 2008). While proponents of intelligent design, like Casey Luskin, and supporters of evolution, like the scientists Margaret Robertson mentioned previously, rarely agree, they found consensus in the assessment that Spore promotes intelligent design. Further, the fears of evolution supporters and the elation of intelligent design proponents only make sense if they are understood as being grounded in the idea that the flawed model of science inside the game would translate into players being, in some way, enticed into believing the model of intelligent design inside the game.

Spore as a toy-like catalyst

Alongside discussions of problems in Spore’s model of evolution, a less pronounced argument also appeared in the press. An article in The New York Times included a mixture of discussion of elements of evolution the game gets right and concerns for how the game might lead to misconceptions. With that noted, the article ends quoting evolutionary biologist Thomas Near hoping ‘‘that Spore prompts people to think about the evolutionary process’’ (Zimmer 2008, F1). While recognizing the fact that the game’s model is problematic, Near and the article offer hope that the game might serve as a catalyst for thinking about science. As the game’s designer suggests the game might serve as, ‘‘manure to seed future scientists’’ (Snider 2008).

When asked about the game in an interview Wright explained that the game tries ‘‘to give an overview of evolution in a way that is very toy-like and caricature-like’’ (Snider 2008). He then provocatively suggests that the game puts ‘‘the player in the role of an intelligent designer.’’ He explains that earlier versions of the game which involved ‘‘carefully mutating things’’ simply were ‘‘not emotionally engaging’’. But that when they put ‘‘players in the role of intelligent designer then people were much more emotionally attached to what they made’’ (Snider 2008). In this case, Wright made a conscious decision to disregard accuracy in the science components of the game’s model to increase the amount of engagement the game engendered in players.

Sympathetic to this approach, an article in Education Week suggested that Spore was ‘‘getting a favorable response from some scholars, who welcome its interactive, engaging approach to the topic even though a few of its features sacrifice strict scientific accuracy to fun’’ (Cavanagh 2008, p. 12). The article goes on to quote Geologist Joe Mert as suggesting that ‘‘Even the things that it gets wrong, it could be a teachable moment.’’ From this perspective inaccuracies in the model the game provides can serve as teachable moments. The notion holds that Spore can serve as a catalyst. A toy someone picks up and plays with which might prompt her to delve deeper into how the processes modeled (however poorly) in the game, reflect or conflict with contemporary scientific thought.

Player as agent or player as sponge?

Press coverage of the release of Spore provides two frames to understand the game’s implications. At their core, both of these frames imply different ideas about what game playing requires and provides to players. Is playing a game a passive experience of consumption? Or, is playing an active process of engaged exploration? Each frame carries with it an ideology of play. The ideas and ideologies behind each of these frames can be explored empirically by examining how people interact with the game in online communities.

Arguments that focus on inaccuracies in the game’s model, including those who suggest that the game ‘‘teaches’’ intelligent design, imply that the gamer is a kind of sponge. If we are afraid of the player absorbing inaccuracies in the model a game provides, such fear is predicated on a belief that players are not sophisticated consumers of the game. Further, for this frame to be internally consistent, we need to believe that there is a kind of literal translation of problems in a game’s model into problems in player’s mental models of phenomena. On an even more basic level, this frame requires the belief that players translate and transfer ideas about the world in the game into their way of understanding and interpreting the natural world. In contrast, arguments that the game would serve as a catalyst, as something that might inspire young people to explore science are, to some extent, model agnostic. This frame suggests that playing the game involves a realization that the game is not forwarding a scientific view of the world. For this frame to be viable, we need to believe players are sophisticated consumers that are actively engaged in deciding what parts of the game’s model represent scientific information. And if players do not do that, they at least retain a healthy skepticism about the game’s model. From this perspective, the emotional or affective impact of the game is more important than accuracy of the model. Capturing the attention and imagination of gamers becomes paramount but that is only possible if one holds that the players do not view the game as a literal representation of the world which they are absorbing, but instead see the game as a toy-like model, simplified with a priority for engaging experience over accurately representing science content.

These two frames represent poles on a spectrum of views about player agency. With that noted, focusing on the stark contrast between the two frames is useful to help explore them as objects of study. It is all too easy to suggest that the truth lies somewhere in between, but by focusing on the polar opposites it becomes easier to hone in on exactly which frame works in what situation and to what extent.

What Spore players do

We can start to evaluate these two frames by looking at what Spore players do. There are many ways one could go about this. One could design an experiment where some students played Spore and some did not in order to see if playing the game had an effect on their views. One could chose some selection criteria to generate a sample of Spore players and interview them. Properly designed these types of studies could tell us about the potential effects of the game or give us an understanding of how Spore players interpret the game. Instead of developing a design along these lines, I have chosen to take a look at what players are doing with the game ‘‘in the wild.’’ Recognizing the critical role games players take in making meaning with games (Morris 2003), I analyze forums in which Spore players have chosen to engage with each other as a result of their experiences in the game. While many studies of gamer thinking use surveys and interviews, analysis of game discussion ‘‘in the wild’’ has become an established approach for understanding how players explore, understand and interpret games (Gee 2003). In an effort to get a sense of the kind of actions and behaviors the game moves users to engage, this section focuses on outlining the kinds of player activities that can be identified from Spore forums and the implications of this analysis for the viability of the two frames described previously.

Public discussions on message boards, forums, and other social media have already been used to explore a wide range of issues in games studies. Analysis of discussions in game forums provides evidence of the kinds of reasoning (Duncan 2008) argumentation (Steinkuehler and Chmiel 2006) and values (Owens 2010) in which players engage and exhibit within game communities, as well as insight into the role player agency plays in the interpretation of game experiences (Schott 2006). Examining this material in the wild allows me to document the role the game plays in player attitudes toward science, evolution and notions of intelligent design without any form of direct interference. It is important to acknowledge a key limitation of this approach. By choosing to study public discourse in the Spore forums this study focuses on the subset of the game’s players who frequent the forums. In this respect, the findings should not be understood as general claims about how players interpret the game, but instead as indicators of how this particular community of Spore players interpret and discuss the game. Through this analysis I suggest that, although the model of evolution in the game and role the game puts players in as an intelligent designer is problematic, there is little evidence to suggest that it prompts players to adopt the game as a scientific model, or to believe in intelligent design. Instead, analysis of players interactions online suggest that, at least in the Spore forums, the game is serving as a springboard for players to explore evolution and other related sciences, in their free time.

The Spore forums

Like most games, Spore has a companion web forum. The first sections of the forum focus on providing support, helping people troubleshoot issues, and providing a space for users to give feedback about the game. The intriguing part of the forums come into view when you scroll a bit further down the page to the section titled ‘‘community’’. Three sub forums are of particular interest: the ‘‘Creator Corner’’, a ‘‘Chat about creations or Spore inspired art;’’ the ‘‘Adventure Corner’’, a place to ‘‘Show off your adventures and discuss adventures created by other players;’’ and ‘‘Spore Roleplay’’ where players can ‘‘Be part of a story.’’ Lastly, there is another section of the forum called ‘‘Science and Spore’’ subtitled ‘‘Theory… and the game’’ in which players discuss a range of science topics and the extent to which the game gets them right or wrong. The discussions under the ‘‘community’’ heading focus much less on technical parts of the game and tend to glance off the game, or use the game as a kind of jumping off point for storytelling (in the case of roleplay) or discussion of science topics (in the case of science and spore).

The ‘‘community’’ section of the forum has far outpaced the section of the forums focused on more general game discussion. At the time of writing this manuscript, the Spore Roleplay section alone had 1,161,886 messages posted, more than the combined total of all the posts in the general Spore discussion sections. This represents the accretion of a massive daily flow of end user discussion. Focusing a bit on the nature and character of the discussions in the Roleplay and Science and Spore sections will provide some material to evaluate the frames the media have provided for understanding the game.

Spore roleplay

In the role playing section of the forums, each player takes on the role of narrating the histories of the creatures they have created. The history of this section is particularly important because it speaks to the desires of the game’s players. The spore role playing section emerged from the desire of users who had begun role playing in other threads in the forums. The first thread in the new section documents its history. The thread has been ‘‘stickied’’ (this means it will always stay on the front page of the forum) to note that it is a particularly important discussion and serves as a touchstone for how discussions in this section of the forum should work.

This first discussion thread’s initial post determines the criteria and need this section of the forums serves. I will quote it at length here as it is particularly germane to the questions of the viability of the two frames.

Just because the real spore game doesn’t have something doesn’t mean you can’t add it. Many people have made new spice resources, tools for tribe, different civilization factions, and all sorts of other things. All you have to do is have imagination..which is needed for any rp actually. There is no rule stating that this isn’t possible and Im not going to say it isn’t in fact I encourage it. Making new things can give flavor to an rp thread.

When the poster suggests that ‘‘Just because the real spore game doesn’t have something doesn’t mean you can’t add it’’ they explicitly invite participants to reimagine the game. In fact, they suggest that all one needs to do this is ‘‘have imagination’’ which they directly link to what anyone needs to have to be able to ‘‘rp,’’ an abbreviation for role play.

The largest section of the forums was created to fulfill a desire of users to create a more open ended space to imagine and explore the content of the game. When this new section of the forums was established one player was so excited that they noted, ‘‘Wewt to my favorite thread being turned into a forum… my only concern is i will not be able to play spore, as this will be too much fun…’’ In another post responding to the start of this new section to the forums, one player explained what they did as a result of the new thread, ‘‘I’ve taken his advice and created an entire history for my Furinkens on the spot! Its long though, so be ready for an extended read.’’ The result is that players have moved from consumers of a game to composers of fictional natural histories.

Spore is built around five different game stages. Players begin the game by controlling a single cell organism, eventually moving through a creature stage, a tribal stage, a civilization stage and a space stage. The details of each of these stages are not particularly critical to describe in this paper, but understanding that the game moves through these stages is important because it provides the background needed to make sense of players’ comments. In general, the discussion threads in this section include back stories about species, civilizations and galactic empires (each representing stages in the Spore game). For example, one thread explains to players that, ‘‘You start at the beginning of tribal age, having just built your first village, or about to do so.’’ The threads begin with foundational work explaining the rules and context for a particular role playing interaction. Threads generally require participants to sign up and provide background information. For example, one thread requires players to submit ‘‘Name of Race: Color of the Race (for the map): Description/picture: Biology: Culture: Starting location (Here you describe the land around them. Then, you will edit the map to show where they live, and a few pixels around.): Form of government:’’ From there, players take turns narrating the story of their creatures and characters and advancing a general narrative in the process.

The fact that these players are role-playing at natural history is itself somewhat interesting, but the details of what that role-playing looks like in practice are all the more interesting. To better understand exactly what happens in these kinds of discussions, consider the species history of the Javelin Hawk, a fictional natural history as described in one of the role-playing discussion threads.

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.

The specifics here are important: the player’s discussion of mutation, of the fact that mutations can be fatal, and the way she or he identifies that a loss of a creature’s food source can serve as an important factor in evolutionary process suggest that the player is bringing her external knowledge about evolution to explain and share the fictional natural history of her or his creature. It is critical to note that inferring what the player thinks from his or her comments is not a transparent or straightforward process. At the same time, the way the player talks about the creature having ‘‘evolved’’ because of a lack of food suggests that there may still be issues with the player’s understanding of evolution.

While these specific details are significant, the broader implications of this discussion are far more fascinating. Typically, role-playing involves players taking on the identity of fictional characters and taking turns describing what they are doing. Indeed, many of the Spore role-play discussions involve individual players role-playing as an individual creature. In the case of the rather common species’ histories, players are role-playing at natural history. Instead of describing the actions of an individual creature or character these players take turns playing with ways of talking science. When players use vocabulary like ‘‘prehensile’’ and reference concepts, such as ‘‘mutation’’ and ‘‘extinction’’, to describe the histories of creatures they made in the game, they are role-playing with the vocabulary and discourse of science. However, fanciful some of the context is, these players are discursively playing at science.

Throughout the role-playing threads the impulse behind creating this section, the most popular section of the Spore forums, remains clear. The kind of freedom that the storytelling of role playing provides allows many players to move beyond the limitations of the model of the world the game imposes. Further, with over one million posts it is clear that the game has served as a catalyst for prompting players to engage in this kind of interaction. What is critical here is not so much that these players are telling stories (which is interesting in its own right) but that the players are using the game as a kind of prompt for telling stories about the history of species, of civilizations and empires. While these are not directly focused on addressing science inaccuracies, it is clear that the game’s model has not played a restrictive role in shaping their imaginations. Far from it. For at least the players who participate in these forums, the game’s model has prompted them to want to explore and tell stories about the histories of their fictitious species.

What is critical to note here is that the game is not simply acting as a prompt for creativity writ large. In these examples, the game is pushing players to engage in creative production grounded in science. These are science stories. These are not simply fanfictions, they are imagined natural histories. The players who participate in the forums are doing so in ways that involve their understanding of the history of the natural world.

Science and Spore

The Science and Spore section of the forums is a wide ranging set of discussions about science. Some of the discussions glance off Spore, but most are just a range of different kinds of questions about science. In threads like, ‘‘Islam and science. Is there a connection?’’ and ‘‘What is antimatter?’’ community members ask and answer questions about science which have nothing to do with the game at all. In this fashion the game has convened a community of individuals who identify with science and are interested in discussing a range of issues with like minded people. Examples of interactions in a few specific threads will help illuminate themes that emerge in the science discourse that occurs.

In a post from a new member titled ‘‘if gravity is real then why do balloons float up?’’ one community member responds, ‘‘It simply isn’t heavy enough.’’ Another member responds that, ‘‘The slightly more correct answer is that the helium has more buoyancy, the same principle that boats floating works on, than air.’’ A third community member suggests, ‘‘same way corks float on water. It’s less dense.’’ In this thread, various posters refine their answers to the question to provide answers they feel are more scientifically accurate.

In another very popular thread, The Common Misconceptions Thread, players discuss common science misconceptions. For example the misconception that ‘‘Global warming will make it snow less.’’ While the early parts of this essay documented considerable concern in the press about the kinds of misconceptions players might develop from playing Spore, this thread opens with the recognition that ‘‘some of the most common misconceptions are actually taught in our schools.’’ Over eleven pages of comments, nearly a hundred posters, identify and critique flawed logic behind common misconceptions of science. In short, beyond simply being aware of potential flaws in the model, these players are actually actively sharing and discussing science misconceptions in a space that would not exist if the game had not served as a catalyst to create it.

Importantly, this discussion of misconceptions engages directly with one of the central misconceptions about evolution. One of the players in this thread nominates the idea that, ‘‘the word ‘theory’ means a ‘guess’’’ as a great example of a common science misconception, to which another player goes into detail to explain that, ‘‘In common speech the word ‘theory’ is often interchangeable with the word ‘guess’ or ‘hypothesis’.’’ This second player goes further to explain that, ‘‘In scientific usage, ‘theory’ denotes a scientific law that has survived thousands of experiments and mathematical proofs. Only the most concrete natural laws get denoted as ‘theories’, and at that point they are considered nearly irrefutable.’’ For the Spore players who participate in the forums, the game has served as a catalyst for creating an opportunity to discuss their ideas and thoughts about science and share their perspectives. Despite any inaccuracies in the model of evolution that the game presents, these types of discussions suggest that those inaccuracies may be much less problematic. In this case, players who engaged with the game enough to be interested in discussing it in the web forums find a place to discuss their interest in science and in that process end up finding much more accurate information about science in the forums than the game initially presents.

In ‘‘The Great Big Chemistry Thread v2.0: aromatic rings added!’’ A poster shares a 5,000 word synopsis of chemistry concepts. The poster starts by noting, ‘‘Physics is probably the biggest topic of discussion around here, but almost always in a theoretical or astronomical sense. I’d like to take this opportunity to start a chemistry based thread as my contribution to the S&S section.’’ In the course of the thread the poster, writing in almost a textbook fashion and including a series of diagrams, discusses protons, neutrons, electrons, orbitals, ionic bonds, covalent bonding, metallic bonding, secondary bonds Vander Waals forces, hydrogen bonding, London Dispersion Forces, excitation, polymers, and states of matter. One might want to try to write this exhaustive textbook style off as an aberration. However, this particular community member is very active and quite well liked. While not every post reads in such a detailed and technical fashion it is clear that this posters perspective is valued in the community. The poster has a four-of-five star rating from other community members, has been participating since 2008 and has posted more than 6,000 messages on the Spore forums.

It would be wrong to leave readers with the impression that this section of the forums focus strictly on factual information. A considerable amount of playful thinking is also happening here. In a thread called ‘‘How do Dragons Work?’’ the poster begins by asking the community for ‘‘scientific answers and suggestion (no magic) about how a dragon might operate.’’ The poster goes on to specifically solicit proposals for how ‘‘huge armored lizards’’ could ‘‘generate enough lift to fly?’’ and further, how they could ‘‘breath fire safely.’’ In the remainder of his 1,800 word post the poster proposes a series of physical characteristics that a creature could have which might give it such properties. Following this post, 12 pages of posts, nearly a hundred players, respond to the ideas he proposes and offer their suggestions for how a dragon might work.

Discussion of How Players Benefit

This essay only begins to scratch the surface of how players benefit from playing this game. By characterizing the kind of conversations that are happening in the Spore forums, this study suggests that the many of the players involved in this community have been catalyzed by the game to engage in a range of what I have argued are valuable conversations involving science. This approach does not allow me to talk about the experiences of any kind of ‘‘average’’ player of Spore because it only focuses on those who participate in the forums. With that noted, it is important to realize that, while participants in the forums may not represent a large percentage of the total number of Spore players, they do represent nearly 80,000 players’ experiences. These numbers suggest that if the game did play a catalytic role for this portion of its players it does offer the possibility that a commercially developed game can inspire individuals to further engage with science. Beyond this limitation, it should also be noted that in exploring the forums I have not attempted to identify any kind of ‘‘average’’ thread. Instead, the analyses here focus on a series of very popular threads and a few which were simply new at the time of writing. This limitation is not particularly significant when the goal of this analysis is to focus on the kinds of discussions that are happening not the frequency of which particular kinds of discussions or themes in discussions are emerging. With that noted, this study suggests the value of more detailed coding of various conversations in the forums as a means to specifically identify the prevalence of these themes.

I have not provided anything close to definitive evidence on what players take away from their experience playing Spore. However, when we look at the proliferation of conversations about science, playful ways of role playing the history of life, and other modes of storytelling taking place in the Spore online community, it does become clear that for many players the simple toy-like environment Spore provides is serving as a springboard to engage with scientific ideas outside the game.

Further, the Science and Spore conversations suggest that alongside this storytelling role, gamers in the community are actively engaged in discussing misconceptions in science writ large, in sharing scientific information which falls outside the scope of the game and having fun imagining how a mythical creature could in-fact be real in an empirical science driven world.

In my reading of the Spore forums, I have found no evidence to suggest that the model of evolution in the game has convinced players to believe in intelligent design. That absence of evidence clearly does not demonstrate evidence of absence. However, importantly, I found no examples of players appealing to the game as an authoritative source of scientific information. Instead, reading the forums leaves one with a sense that the game is doing more or less what the designer suggested; acting as a catalyst for people to think about science and getting them to have fun with science. Whether the game prompted these feelings in players or simply convened a place in which they are now engaged with each other, this study suggests that Spore has served a catalytic role.

This line of reasoning has direct implications for evaluating games and informal science experiences. If the goal of a game is to inspire interest in exploring science, prioritizing student engagement over accuracy of science content may well be a worthwhile trade-off. This is not to suggest that there is a dichotomy between accuracy and engagement, but only to recognize that prioritizing one over the other in the design process will result in the creation of different games. More broadly, this approach further underscores the value of shifting analysis of games away from media effects paradigms, where media are interpreted as conduits for messages, to the much more open notion of games as ‘‘possibility spaces’’ (DeVane and Squire 2008). As a possibility space, players co-create the meaning of their experiences with games in dialog with the game’s creator, informal online community, or affinity space (Gee 2004), of players who discuss and explore ideas introduced in the game.


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