Flunking Spore – video game failed by scientists

 

The potential of video games for learning has been the subject of much recent curiosity and debate. How many times have you heard…“If only we could combine the engagement of video games with real (meaning school) learning…”

Spore is a new game that is being promoted as just such a hybrid. It’s the latest brainchild of Will Wright, the world-famous designer of unusual, yet popular games like The Sims and Sim City.

If anyone could design a breakout game that combines learning and fun, Will Wright is the guy.

Spore is a game where you create a single-cell organism that evolves. Keeping your creature alive and growing is the goal, and you can design and improve your creatures as generations go by and gain sophistication. Eventually they gain intelligence, and you have to deal with tribes and civilizations, deciding on war and peace, and eventually going out into outer space to explore and/or conquer whole worlds.

In an interview with National Geographic, Will Wright talks about, “…the breakthrough science that’s revealing the secret genetic machinery that shapes all life in the game Spore.” National Geographic has made a documentary, called “How to Build a Better Being” that is being sold by Spore publisher Electronic Arts in a deluxe version. (National Geographic website promoting the game.) The documentary positions Spore as solid science, complete with supporting interviews with scientists.

Now the bad news..
This month’s Science magazine (the peer-reviewed journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) decided to put this to the test. In Flunking Spore, author and “Gonzo Scientist” John Bohannon played Spore with evolutionary biologists, and concludes,

“…the problem isn’t just that Spore dumbs down the science or gets a few things wrong–it’s meant to be a game, after all–but rather, it gets most of biology badly, needlessly, and often bizarrely wrong.”

Anyone interested in games and education needs to read this article. It’s a wake-up call about this game’s relevance to education, and parallels much of the wishful thinking that dominates the games and education discussion.

And worse, when Bohannon went to interview the scientists who appeared in the National Geographic video, he found that they had not been told that their interviews were going to be used to promote a video game. He quotes Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who worries that science has been hijacked to promote a product. “I was used,” says Shubin.

After playing the game, the scientists Bohannon interviewed gave Spore failing grades across the board.

“Spore’s biology grades rolled in like a slow-motion train wreck. For organismic biology–genetics, cell biology, reproduction, and development–Gregory and Eldredge smacked Spore with a D-. The game flunked evolutionary biology outright with an F. According to Gregory and Eldredge, “Spore has very little to do with real biology.”

And it’s interesting to me that in a TED talk from March 2007, Will Wright demos Spore and makes no such claims. Who decided to push this as a game where you could learn about evolution and biology?

OK, so perhaps Spore isn’t going to change the way biology is taught in school, but does that mean that someday, someone, isn’t going to design a game that does? Trying to keep an open mind and never say never is always good policy, but when Will Wright fails, and the promotion is based on sleight-of-hand, if not blatant lies, it’s discouraging.

On Monday, my presentation for the online conference K12online 2008, Games and Education will go live and there is some discussion of the problem there. I’ll update this post with that link when it’s available.

 

3 Replies to “Flunking Spore – video game failed by scientists”

  1. I bought Spore for my lawyer son for his birthday, I watched over his shoulder as he played it. I decided I couldn’t use it in the elementary classroom not because of bad science but because of the “E” word–evolution! ….and the possilility of large penis shaped creatures coming across the screen with kids looking on!! haha!

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