September 3, 2008

The Intelligent Creatures From the Video Lagoon

By Carl Zimmer

By day, Thomas Near studies the evolution of fish, wading through streams in Kentucky and Mississippi in search of new species. By night, Near, an assistant professor at Yale University, is a heavy- duty gamer, steering tanks or playing football on his computer. On a recent afternoon, his two lives came together.

On his laptop swims a strange fishlike creature, with a jaw that snaps sideways and skin the color of green sea glass. As Near taps the keyboard, it wiggles and twists its way through a busy virtual ocean. It tries to eat other creatures and turns its spine toward predators that would make it a meal.

The chairman of Near's department, Richard Prum, watches him play and worries about his reckless lunges.

"You're just attacking them?" he asks as Near tries to eat a fat purple worm that looks too dangerous to bother.

"If you kill them, you unlock their parts," Near explains. But then the purple worm sticks its syringelike mouth into Near's beast and begins to drain its innards. "Uh oh, I'm about to die," he says. The screen fades to black.

The next time around, Near's luck changes. He gains enough points to move to the next level of the game. His creature grows a brain.

"Oh, man, it's like I graduated college," he says. Near can now alter his creature. He stretches the body to give it a neck. He adds a pair of kangaroolike legs.

His creature - or, rather, a swarm of his creatures - charges out of the ocean and onto land. Near pushes back the laptop as his creatures find a place to make their nest and lay eggs. "So that's pretty cool," he says with a grin not often seen on a professor.

Near and Prum have spent a few evenings testing out Spore, one of the most eagerly anticipated video games in the history of the industry. After years of rumors, the game goes on sale in some European countries on Thursday and in North America on Friday.

Spore's designer, Will Wright, is best known for creating a game called the Sims in 2000. That game, which lets players run the lives of a virtual family, has sold 100 million copies. It is the best- selling video game franchise of all time - an impressive achievement in an $18 billion-a-year industry that is now bigger than Hollywood.

Spore, produced by Electronic Arts, promises much more than the day-to-day adventures of simulated people. It starts with single- cell microbes and follows them through their evolution into intelligent multicellular creatures that can build civilizations, colonize the galaxy and populate new planets.

Unlike the typical shoot-them-till-they-are-all-dead video game, Spore was strongly influenced by science, and in particular by evolutionary biology.

Evolutionary biologists like Near and Prum, who have had a chance to try out the game, like it a great deal. "I think it's a great game," said Near. But they also have some serious reservations. The step-by-step process by which Spore's creatures change does not have much to do with real evolution. "The mechanism is severely messed up," Prum said.

Evolution may seem impossible to capture in a computer. It is a complicated process by which millions of individuals change over millions of years, as thousands of genes mutate and are spread by natural selection and other forces. Yet scientists have managed to distill some of the most important features of evolution into the language of mathematics.

Using a branch of mathematics called game theory, scientists can figure out whether natural selection will favor a strategy over all others, or whether it brings them into a stable balance. Game- theory models have shed light on the evolution of everything from human cooperation to the deadly relationship of parasites and their hosts.

Today's computers make it vastly easier for scientists to build these models. They have also allowed researchers to study evolution by building digital organisms. Scientists at Michigan State University and the California Institute of Technology, for example, have developed software called Avida that allows tiny computer programs to behave like real organisms. They make copies of themselves and mutate, randomly changing lines of programming code.

As the programs process more information in more powerful ways, the mutations are favored by a digital version of natural selection.

Wright, the designer, came to the challenge of an evolution game with a long track record of simplifying complex systems without losing the feel of reality. He first gained fame in 1989 with SimCity, a game that allowed players to build and oversee a city. He simplified the workings of cities so that the slow personal computer of the late 1980s could simulate them. But he included enough feedback loops between elements of cities - like tax rates, incomes and traffic jams - to give SimCity the unpredictable complexity of real cities.

Around the time he released the Sims, Wright began to contemplate an all-encompassing game. At first, he called it SimEverything. The game, which he eventually renamed Spore, would give players an experience of life and the universe across billions of years, from microscopic creatures to interstellar civilizations.

Wright wanted Spore to communicate some of the grand patterns of evolution. But he did not want players to spend a million years waiting for something interesting to happen. He also did not want the game to look like an abstract cloud of drifting spots. So he began doing research to decide what aspects of evolution Spore would distill.

"I spent a fair amount of time going around to talk to scientists here and there," Wright said. "You have to explore a huge amount to figure what 20 percent will be cool and fun for a game."

The game begins with a meteorite crashing into a planet, sowing its oceans with life and organic matter. Players control a simple creature that gobbles up bits of debris. They can choose to eat other creatures, eat vegetation or both. As the creature eats and grows, it gains "DNA points," which the player can use to add extra parts like tails for swimming or spikes for defense. Once the creature has gotten big and complex enough, it is ready for the transition to land.

On land, the creatures can grow legs, wings and other new parts. And it is at this point that some of Spore's features really shine. Wright's team has written software that can rapidly transform creatures in an infinite number of ways, as players add parts and alter their size, shape, and position.

This summer, as part of the buildup before the release of Spore, Electronic Arts offered software for building new creatures on its Web site. So far, people have built more than three million creatures. Electronic Arts uses that growing zoo to populate each player's planets with life.

Even as scientists praise Spore, they also voice concerns about how the game does not match evolution. In the real world, new traits evolve as mutations arise and spread gradually through entire populations. Winning Spore's DNA points does not work even as a remote metaphor.

"I do hope that it doesn't confuse people as to what evolution is all about," said Charles Ofria, a computer scientist at Michigan State University who helped create the Avida software.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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