The Mason’s Apprentice

My latest Seed column slipped quietly onto the interwebs last week — it’s an overview of how the glues that hold multicellular organisms together first evolved in single celled creatures, represented today by the choanoflagellates.

Just as a teaser, the next print edition that should be coming out soon will continue the focus on enlightening organisms of remarkable simplicity with a description of the results of the Trichoplax genome. Get it! You will also be rewarded with a great issue focusing on science policy.

The dumbification of Spore

As anyone who has followed computer games at all lately knows, Spore is the recently released computer game from Maxis that was initially touted as a kind of partial simulation of evolution. Unfortunately, It wasn’t a very good simulation of much of anything, and as a game it has only been a partial success, with some parts being quite entertaining and others deserving a resounding “meh”. (Disclaimer: I have the game, but haven’t bothered to install it yet; I’ve let Skatje play it for me, and I’ve read the reviews, and suffered a noticeable loss of enthusiasm from that exposure.)

Now there is a revealing inside view of the Spore development process, with some tantalizing hints of some really great stuff that was implemented in early versions of the game, that never made it to release. Here’s the problem: the developers divided into two competing/complementary teams with radically different goals, a “cute team” and a “science team”. Guess who won?

This was Spore’s central problem: Could the game be both scientifically accurate and fun? The prototyping teams were becoming lost in their scientific interests. Chaim Gingold, a team member who started as an intern and went on to help design the game’s content creation tools, recalls a summer spent playing with pattern language and cellular automata: “It was just about being engaged with the universe as a set of systems, and being able to build toys that manifested our fascination with these systems and our love for them.” But from within this explosion of experimental enthusiasm came an unexpected warning voice. Spore’s resident uber-geek and artificial intelligence expert Chris Hecker was having strong misgivings about how appealing all this hard science would be to the wider world. “I was the founding member of the ‘cute’ team,” he says with pride. “Ocean [Quigley, Spore’s art director] and Will were really the founding members of the ‘science’ team. Ocean would make the cell game look exactly like a petri dish with all these to-scale animals and Will would say, ‘That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!’ and some of us were thinking, ‘I’m not sure about that.'”

(That, by the way, is from the Seed magazine article on the game. You’ve probably already seen it since you all subscribe, right?)

This is the annoying mantra of far too many people, from Barbie to Chris Hecker: “science is hard”. Yes, it is…and that’s what makes it fun! Games are also hard, if they’re any good — you often have to master difficult moves, arcane strategy, work fast or plan far ahead, or solve tricky puzzles, and that’s why we choose to play them, that’s the appeal. What I was looking for in Spore was for someone to take a look with a gamer’s eyes at the process of science and extract from it the puzzle-solving essence and make it approachable and entertaining; instead, they seem to have given up on the science and instead created animated plush dolls for amusement’s sake.

It’s a real shame. There is a little hope in an unlikely suggestion:

I hope that Maxis announces that it intends to rectify this odd deviation from their plan through expansion packs, including a complete overhaul of the Cell Stage and Creature Stage, at minimum. The forced linear progression of the game and forced evolution should also be removed from the Cell and Creature Stages, as it is not faithful to the freedom of the advertised product. (Evolution to a better brain should be optional, at least in the Creature Stage, as it was in the earlier videos.) I do not believe that we have a right to demand it be free, as the development costs of this game are already astronomical. This may have not been as much of a problem if they hadn’t been spending the past few years removing content.

Somebody at Maxis should have encouraged everyone to embrace the science. It could have been great. I don’t know why they didn’t, but I suspect that a bean counter somewhere noted that it never hurts to underestimate the intelligence of the buying public…and decided to embrace the lowest common denominator instead of aspiring to greatness.

Radio reminder

Don’t forget to tune in to Atheists Talk radio for a discussion of state science standards sometime this morning. It’s nominally at 9am, but there’s a time change tonight, I’m in a different time zone right now, and I’ve got to be up at 4am to catch a plane home, so I have no idea what time it will actually be. You figure it out.

Worse than atheists

In case you’ve been feeling dumped upon because atheists seem to be the current target of contempt by so many, there is still one group that might be lower: Dungeons & Dragons players. At GenCon, D&D players raised $17,000 to donate to the late Gary Gygax’s favorite charity, The Christian Children’s fund…only to have it turned down because sales of the heathenish D&D contributed to the amount.

If you are a D&D player and an atheist, then I’m sorry, this won’t cheer you up, because obviously you are the lowest slime in the universe.

The Bad Faith Awards for 2008 nominations are trickling in

The New Humanist has a yearly anti-award event, the Bad Faith Awards, given to the “most scurrilous enemy of reason” for the year. Last year, Dinesh D’Souza won; so far this year, two have been nominated, with more nominations to come. The two are Ann Coulter and, of course, Sarah Palin. They asked me to nominate someone, and I’m the wicked fellow who thought Palin was deserving…but perhaps they would have gotten a more persuasive nomination if they’d asked Jerry Coyne.

Uppity octopus

This is my kind of beast. Otto the octopus of the Sea Star aquarium in Coburg likes to cause trouble.

“We knew that he was bored as the aquarium is closed for winter, and at two feet, seven inches Otto had discovered he was big enough to swing onto the edge of his tank and shoot out a the 2000 Watt spot light above him with a carefully directed jet of water.”

“Once we saw him juggling the hermit crabs in his tank, another time he threw stones against the glass damaging it. And from time to time he completely re-arranges his tank to make it suit his own taste better – much to the distress of his fellow tank inhabitants.”

He was just expressing his cephalopodian nature militantly, I think.